AUGUSTA – Maine Democrats, led by Senate President Justin L. Alfond (D-Portland) and House Speaker Mark W. Eves (D-North Berwick) announced Thursday that the Veterans and Legal Affairs (VLA) Committee would combine Gov. Paul R. LePage’s hospital repayment bill with a separate proposal to expand Medicaid.
“Later this afternoon, our proposal will be taken up by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee,” said President Alfond.
The announcement came during a press conference in the State House, with nearly every Democratic lawmaker present. Within hours the VLA Committee voted on strict party lines to merge the bills. The amended proposal now heads to the floors of the House and Senate for a vote, where Democrats are aiming for a veto-proof majority.
Noticeably absent from the herd of Democrats’ in attendance was Sen. John Tuttle, Jr. (D-Sanford), top Democrat on the VLA Committee. Sen. Tuttle just last week said he did not support Eves and Alfond’s decision to merge the bills. Now it appears leadership cut him out of the decision.
Democratic staffers said Tuttle was absent from the press event because of health issues – vertigo.
In a phone interview, Tuttle told The Maine Wire that he was indeed feeling under the weather. He said he learned of Thursday’s press conference in a memo from Eves Wednesday evening. He said that leadership had told him the bill to link hospital payment with Medicaid expansion would be worked on Friday. He was surprised the VLA Committee moved the bill without him.
“I was caught off guard,” Tuttle said. “I would rather have been there,” he said.
Tuttle does not feel like he was cut out of the process for disagreeing with leadership.
“I’ve been circumvented before,” he said. “Nothing surprises me in the Maine Legislature.”
Rep. Terry Hayes (D-Buckfield), another Democrat who did not participate in today’s press event, said she first learned about the Democrats’ press conference in an email from Speaker Eves.
Hayes said that the only advantage to combining the bills is political.
“We work in a political environment,” said Hayes. “Things get paired together all the time,” she said. “Part of me has this visceral reaction against putting all this stuff together, but it’s how it happens.”
Asked how Democrats might pay for Medicaid expansion after federal funds tail off, Hayes said the estimated $102 million in new General Fund spending could be supplied through significant tax reform. She said the so-called Gang of Eleven’s tax reform proposal would supply new revenues to fund Medicaid expansion after federal funding drops below 100 percent, as it is scheduled to do in three years.
Republicans, in a press conference of their own, condemned the Democrats for playing “Nancy Pelosi-style politics” and putting their Party’s interests and ideology ahead of the Maine people.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) said Republicans have not ruled out supporting Medicaid expansion, but want to give the governor time to negotiate the best possible deal for the State. He said the Democrats’ move could cost Maine over the long-run, as LePage now has little bargaining power with the federal government, and lawmakers have less time to evaluate the proposal.
“We saw it in Washington, DC four years ago when Democrats rammed through Obamacare in the middle of the night using parliamentary tricks to shutout the minority,” said Fredette.
Fredette said Republicans will not support a bill that combines Medicaid expansion with paying the hospitals.
The Republicans will offer two alternatives. The first, said Fredette, will be an amendment to separate the two bills. The second would form a bipartisan commission to study Medicaid expansion and report back to the Legislature in October.
The escalation of political tensions between the LePage administration and the Eves-Alfond majority is unwelcome news to Maine’s hospitals.
“We’re frustrated and disappointed. We feel like a pinball in the State House pinball machine,” said Jeffrey Austin, VP of government affairs for the Maine Hospital Association (MHA).
MHA supports both Medicaid expansion and paying the hospitals, but does not support linking the bills.
“We do not support linking,” said Austin. He said Democrats’ decision to link hospital repayment and Medicaid expansion jeopardized both measures.
“We had a bill headed for unanimous passage and one headed for a tough debate,” he said. “Now we’ve got one big bill going nowhere.”