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Lawmakers spar over Speaker’s potential conflict of interest

Rep. Lawrence E. Lockman, R-Amherst

Rep. Lawrence E. Lockman, R-Amherst

Rep. Lawrence E. Lockman (R-Amherst) and Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff M. McCabe (D-Skowhegan) took to the pages of the Portland Press Herald this week to debate the Legislature’s gimmick-ridden budget and a possible conflict of interest surrounding Medicaid expansion.

In an Op-Ed published Tuesday, Lockman blasted both Republicans and Democrats who voted in support of a budget that was not balanced – even despite a 10 percent sales tax increase and a 14 percent tax increase on meals and lodging.

“We now know that even with these substantial tax hikes, this budget is not balanced,” said Lockman. “It relies on $70 million in unidentified savings and a one-day $98 million fiscal-year accounting shift.”

“It is cobbled together with duct tape and chewing gum, and everyone at the State House knew we were setting the stage for yet another supplemental stopgap budget just as soon as the Legislature reconvenes in January,” he said.

[RELATED: Tax hike task force looks for $40 million in new revenue...]

The  unidentified savings Lockman refers to is comprised roughly of $40 million in yet-to-be-determined tax increases and $35 million in spending reductions which the Legislature delegated to the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management.

OPM has already followed the Legislature’s orders in coming up with spending reductions, but a special task force will decide how to generate $40 million in new revenue by eliminating tax exemptions to increase taxes by the end of the year.

Lockman also called out House Speaker Mark W. Eves (D-North Berwick), who has spearheaded Democratic efforts to expand Maine’s medical welfare program, known as Medicaid or MaineCare.

“Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves has now stooped to questioning the motives of Republicans who raised the issue of the waiting lists during the budget debate this year,” said Lockman. “The truth is that Republican legislators were calling for action on the waiting lists two years ago.”

“In any case, Eves is hardly is any position to be casting stones at the Republican Party, given his history working for a company that would reap a huge financial windfall from yet another Medicaid expansion,” he said.

“The social services nonprofit Sweetser rakes in tens of millions of Medicaid dollars annually,” said Lockman. “Rep. Eves served until January as business development director for Sweetser while he simultaneously advocated for Medicaid expansion as the lead Democrat on the Health and Human Services Committee.”

“He’s now reportedly on a leave of absence from Sweetser, but has doubled down on his legislative push to expand the welfare program that would increase the flow of Medicaid dollars to Sweetser,” he said. “But that’s not a conflict of interest, is it? Nothing to see here, folks, move along …”

Assistnt House Majority Leader Jeff W. McCabe, D-Skowhegan

Assistnt House Majority Leader Jeff M. McCabe, D-Skowhegan

For pointing out what appears to be a conflict interest for the top Democrat in Augusta and his signature legislative issue, McCabe quickly harpooned Lockman in the same newspaper.

In a Wednesday Op-Ed, “Another View: With attacks, misinformation, GOP legislator crosses the line,” the Skowhegan lawmaker attacked Lockman but did not refute any of the facts Lockman raised.

“I was surprised and disappointed to see the Portland Press Herald publish a column by Rep. Lawrence Lockman of Amherst,” began McCabe, who apparently prefers the state’s largest newspaper engage in political censorship of his colleagues. “The column is filled with tea party misinformation, false personal attacks and misleading claims.”

“Again and again, we’ve seen tea party politicians like Lockman push the politics of brinksmanship over standing up for working families in Maine,” he said.

McCabe said the budget was “responsible” because it avoided a state shutdown and did not make more severe cuts to revenue sharing. “The tea party might not like it, but those are wins for the people we represent,” he said.

McCabe appears to be following a statewide trend among Democrats in vilifying the tea party movement. Although McCabe said Lockman “personally attacks” Eves for his effort to expand Maine’s medical welfare program, he does not address the appearance of Eves’ conflict of interest.

In June, The Maine Wire reported exclusively on Eves’ conflicting roles as Director of Business Development for the social services agency Sweetser and as Democratic lead on Medicaid expansion.

Although Eves said at the time that he was on a leave of absence from Sweetser, questions have remained about the potential windfall Sweetser stands to reap should Medicaid expansion become law.

Sweetser President and CEO Carlton D. Pendleton told The Maine Wire that the social services agency he has run for 35 years will likely benefit from the proposed expansion of Medicaid.

“We knew this could have happened when he became Speaker,” Pendleton said at the time, in reference to Eves’ possible conflict of interest.  “We’re probably 80 percent dependent on state and federal matching funds,” he said.

Pendleton said the potential conflict played a role in the decision to remove Eves from Sweetser’s payroll. “After he was elected Speaker, we decided it would be best for Mark to take a leave of absence,” he said.

As CEO of Sweetser, which is technically a non-profit school, Pendleton is paid nearly $300,000 a year, according to tax documents.

[RELATED: Medicaid expansion means millions for House Speaker's boss...]

According to an analysis of Sweetser’s past tax filings, expanding Medicaid eligibility as Eves has proposed could mean an increase of $20 million or more in Sweetser’s taxpayer-funded revenue stream, as Medicaid would pay for up to 70,000 new taxpayer-funded clients.

The debate over Medicaid expansion – and welfare reform generally – will likely dominate the discussion once the Legislature convenes in January. Despite a Joint Legislative Rule that prevents lawmakers from introducing a bill in the same session after it has already been defeated, Eves has said his Party will go forward with another Medicaid expansion attempt.

“Speaker Eves is not going to let a technicality get in the way of health care for tens of thousands of Mainers, including nearly 3,000 veterans,” said Eves’ communications director in a written statement.

Steve Robinson
Maine Wire Reporter
serobinson@themainewire.com

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