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“Non-partisan” State House staff wrote Medicaid expansion talking points for Democrats

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MaineStateHouse1AUGUSTA – A non-partisan analyst on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services (HHS) Committee engaged in partisan activism to push a Democrat-backed Medicaid expansion bill last year, according to emails obtained through a public records request.

The emails surface one week after top State House staffers held a closed-door meeting with Republican lawmakers in an attempt to convince them that the HHS committee analyst, Jane Orbeton, is not inappropriately advocating for the Democratic Party’s policy agenda.

“I was thinking of 70,000 people and trying to put faces on them,” Orbeton said in a May 20 email to Sen. Margaret Craven (D-Androscoggin) and Rep. Richard Farnsworth (D-Portland), co-chairs of the HHS Committee.

“They’re the ones who will or will not be covered by MaineCare expansion,” said Orbeton. “They’re the people we can tell that we chose to provide them access to health care or we chose not to even though the costs of care are 100% paid.”

Jane writing talking points

Committee analysts like Orbeton work under the Office of Policy and Legal Analysis (OPLA) and are tasked with conducting research on bill proposals and drafting bill language under the direction of a given committee. Analysts are required to be non-partisan, but they must also respond to any lawmaker’s request.

The email is one of several obtained by The Maine Wire pursuant to a Freedom of Access Act request which show Orbeton engaged in activities of a partisan or ideological nature.

[RELATED: Advocate or Analyst: Emails raise questions about non-partisan staffers role on HHS Committee…]

farnsworth

Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland

In the May 20 email, Orbeton goes on to suggest talking points for the Democratic lawmakers to use when advocating for L.D. 1066, the ultimately failed attempt to expand Medicaid last year. Specifically, Orbeton recommends that Craven and Farnsworth compare the population impacted by expansion to areas within their districts.

“Give or take a few thousand, they are: All of Lewiston, Auburn, Mechanic Falls, Minot and Poland. Or All of Aroostook County. Or All of Sagadahoc and Waldo Counties. Or All of Franklin and Knox Counties. Or All of Washington and Waldo Counties,” said Orbeton.

Sen. Margaret Craven (D-Androscoggin)

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Androscoggin

On the same day Orbeton emailed pro-Medicaid expansion talking points to Democratic co-chairs of the HHS Committee, Craven said the following during a Senate session on Medicaid expansion: “Seventy thousand people are more than the entire city of Lewiston, Auburn, and Minot, every single person, being able to have healthcare. That’s really enormous.”

Earlier emails between Orbeton and employees of Maine Equal Justice Partners revealed a close relationship between the supposedly non-partisan legislative staffer and the left-wing advocacy group. In one instance, Orbeton asked why MJEP had not filed a lawsuit against DHHS. In another, she asked a MJEP staffer to delete emails which she later determined were inappropriate.

The Maine Wire’s reporting on those emails prompted a closed-door meeting between David Boulter, executive director of the Maine Legislature, Marion Hylan Barr, director of OPLA, Orbeton, and the two top Republicans on the HHS Committee, Sen. James Hamper (R-Oxford) and Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea).

The purpose of the meeting was to assuage GOP members’ concerns about Orbeton’s partisan activism.

According to Boulter, Orbeton’s base annual salary is $87,339, not including benefits. He declined to comment on any disciplinary action that would be taken against the staffer as it was a “personnel matter.”

Prior to the disclosure of her emails, Orbeton was viewed as overly friendly to Democratic lawmakers. She has been observed clapping when Democrats score victories in committee hearings and is sometimes referred to as the “extra Democrat” on the HHS Committee. But the emails provide concrete evidence that Orbeton is working behind the scenes to advance Democrat-backed bills through the HHS Committee.

In an email to The Maine Wire, Orbeton said she wrote the Democratic talking points in response to a request from a lawmaker; however, she declined to say who asked her to produce the talking points.

Sanderson and Hamper both received phone calls from Obreton last week, prior to the release of these emails to The Maine Wire; both said the emails have only heightened their concern that the HHS Committee has an inherent bias favoring Democrats.

“My reaction when Jane called me to let me know about that document – quite honestly, I was a bit dumbfounded,” said Hamper. “I’m surprised that the committee chairs were using the analyst in that fashion.”

Sanderson said she was disturbed that even more information is coming out about the partisan activities of someone who is supposed to be non-partisan staff. “It’s even more disturbing to learn that these talking points were used nearly ver batem on the Senate floor to support a proposal that will cost Maine taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars,” she said.

She said the meeting with Orbeton and her bosses was an attempt at damage control. “They are very concerned, they wanted to assure us that they would do whatever they could to regain our trust,” she said.

But for Hamper, regaining trust will not be easy. “Once a bond of trust is broken, it is very difficult to get it back,” he said.

Beyond writing talking points for Democratic lawmakers, analysts who do not maintain non-partisanship are uniquely positioned to support Democratic policy initiatives like Medicaid expansion. One way an analyst could influence legislation is by manipulating fiscal notes – the documents which include a non-partisan estimate of a bill’s cost.

[RELATED: Report: Cost, welfare roles to soar under Obamacare Medicaid expansion…]

L.D. 1578, the most current Medicaid expansion bill, does not have a fiscal note. The lack of a fiscal note has only added to the controversy surrounding the proposal’s cost. While Democrats have insisted the measure will save Maine money, Republicans have pointed to official DHHS reports and the controversial Alexander Report as indications that Maine taxpayers will be left on the hook for upwards of $800 million over the next decade.

“Those of us on the Legislative side are not certain as to how much input the analyst has on the fiscal note,” said Hamper. “That’s part of the problem here.”

Hamper and Sanderson said they hope Orbeton will refrain from partisan activism, but they are willing to consider asking for disciplinary action if more evidence of her Democratic activism arises.

[RELATED: Misleading arguments for Medicaid expansion…]

“We hope [Orbeton] has learned that she works for everybody on the committee and not just Democrats,” she said. “If it turns out that it’s more egregious than we see now, we may be prepared to ask for further action.”

Steve Robinson
Editor, Maine Wire

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson was the editor of The Maine Wire from 2013 through 2014. A native of Dexter, Maine, Robinson is a graduate of Bowdoin College, and is currently a Producer for The Howie Carr Show in Boston.

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“Non-partisan” State House staff wrote Medicaid expansion talking points for Democrats