AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s decision Wednesday to hit the brakes on a one-day-old ballot question passed by voters to expand Medicaid in Maine is only the latest example of a trend by the governor or Legislature to, in many residents’ eyes, alter or ignore the will of voters.
Last year, voters endorsed a 3 percent income tax surcharge on the richest Mainers to boost education funding — which the Legislature killed in the face of the governor’s opposition — and legalized marijuana and a complex plan for its retail sale, which LePage also blocked.
Rep. Jim Handy, D-Lewiston, said it is now “the responsibility and the duty of the governor and the Legislature to fully and faithfully implement” the new Medicaid expansion.
“To do otherwise flies in the face of the will of the voters. We have seen this happen much too often this past year,” Handy said.
Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said Wednesday that though Question 2 may have secured the blessing of nearly 60 percent of the electorate for adding 70,000 or more Mainers to the Medicaid rolls, the “economic reality has not changed.”
Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, said, “We simply cannot justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars on policy not fully vetted through the legislative process.”
“The referendum process can be useful on issues that reflect non-fiscal policy changes,” Bickford said. “We simply cannot give everyone a free pony because they want one.”
“We don’t have the money to expand Medicaid for able-bodied adults,” Brakey said, “especially not when our most vulnerable — our seniors and intellectually disabled — sit on unfunded wait lists for desperately needed services.”
Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said, however, that “the people of Maine made clear at the ballot box that they didn’t buy the governor’s lies about Medicaid expansion.”
“Now, he’s turning to the same lies to put up roadblocks to implementation of this wildly popular law,” Libby said. “Democrats in the Legislature will not let Gov. LePage or anyone else take health care away from 80,000 hardworking Mainers, who he has allowed to fall through the cracks for far too long.”
The split between the Democrats and LePage and his Republican allies is the same as the one that kept the 3 percent income tax surcharge from being imposed despite winning the support of voters last year. It’s also responsible for the mixed implementation of a minimum wage ballot measure and the marijuana legalization question from last year.
State Treasurer Terry Hayes, an independent who’s running for governor, said recently the referendum process in Maine could be improved.
She said perhaps ballot questions ought to be conceptual, so that legislators and governors know what the people want.
That way, Hayes said, the onus would be on them to find a way to implement the will of the people without being locked into detailed logistics laid out by referendum organizers rather than government experts.
LePage said last summer that at the very least, it ought to be much more difficult for a referendum question to reach the ballot.
As it is, he has complained repeatedly, all it takes is a well-funded group that doesn’t even have to hail from Maine to put issues before the voters that ought to be decided by the Legislature.
LePage wasted no time declaring that he wouldn’t implement Medicaid expansion, which he’s already vetoed five times.
“Credit agencies are predicting that this fiscally irresponsible Medicaid expansion will be ruinous to Maine’s budget,” LePage said in a prepared statement.
“Therefore, my administration will not implement Medicaid expansion until it has been fully funded by the Legislature” at levels the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has determined are necessary, the governor said.
LePage said he “will not support increasing taxes on Maine families, raiding the rainy-day fund or reducing services to our elderly or disabled.”
Betsy Sweet, a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, said the voters have spoken and failing to implement their decision would be “a slap in the face to every Maine citizen who took the time to make their voice heard, and undermines our democracy.”
But at least two of the Republicans who want to be governor — House Minority Leader Ken Fredette and Mary Mayhew, the former commissioner of Health and Human Services for LePage — said Wednesday the newly passed Medicaid referendum shouldn’t move forward.
Fredette, R-Newport, acknowledged the voters’ choice and then cast doubt on actually doing it.
“I do not believe House Republicans will support any tax increase or the raiding of the rainy-day fund to pay for an ever-expanding state government due to the out-of-control referendum process,” Fredette said.
Speaking on Bangor-based WVOM radio Wednesday, Mayhew said that because “an incredibly low voter turnout” endorsed “a couple sentences on the ballot” is no reason to bypass the responsibility of political leaders to contemplate how to pay for it.
“This can get passed in the ballot box,” she said. “It does not absolve the Legislature’s and the governor’s responsibility to comprehensively evaluate and do the right thing for Mainers.”
House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said “any attempts to illegally delay or subvert this law will not be tolerated and will be fought with every recourse at our disposal.”
“Mainers want more access to health care, not less, and are no longer willing to wait,” she said. “Despite Gov. LePage and his allies’ repeated attempts to kill this critical proposal, Mainers could not have spoken more clearly yesterday when they told us that they demand affordable access to health care.”
“So let me be clear: We will be fully and faithfully implementing this law,” Gideon said. “The Legislature will move swiftly to fund Medicaid expansion as required by law. The governor and DHHS commissioner will implement its requirements as well, as they are obligated to do.”
She added, “Mainers demanded affordable access to health care yesterday, and that is exactly what we intend to deliver.”
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett called the GOP position “insulting to Maine voters.”
“Their unwillingness to honor the wishes of the voters not only shows how deeply out of touch they are with the people of Maine, but how they will apparently stop at nothing to put their extreme ideology ahead of the needs of Mainers,” Bartlett said.
Question 2 would allow at least 70,000 low-income Mainers to enroll in the federal Medicaid program to secure health care coverage that many of them lack. The Legislature’s fiscal staff figured this year the change would require the state to spend an additional $54 million a year and bring in about $525 million in federal funds each year.
Critics, including Mayhew and Brakey, said they don’t trust the federal government to continue to pay its share and worry about where Maine will find the money to cover its portion of the costs.
But Rep. Heidi Brooks, D-Lewiston, said it’s critical the state provide health care for people who are “choosing between food, medicine and their home. Many people have suffered and died because they didn’t get the care they needed, when they needed it. We need to come together to ensure that every human being is treated with dignity and respect.”
Gov. Paul LePage (AP file photo)