Gov. Paul LePage has made it clear that he won’t assist the Legislature as it tries to plug a hole in the state’s two-year budget.
The governor’s rationale goes something like this: State lawmakers rejected his budget last year. He rejected their budget. They passed their budget anyway. Now there’s a budget gap. Their budget, their problem.
On Tuesday, lawmakers will begin the process of fixing their budget and it won’t be easy, particularly because the LePage administration is providing minimal assistance. Several outcomes are possible, including the prospect that LePage could end up using his curtailment authority if Democrats and Republicans can’t reach a deal that has a veto-proof majority. (It’s widely presumed that the governor will veto whatever budget the Legislature puts in front of him.)
All the potential outcomes are accompanied by various political calculations by the partisan offices. However, on Tuesday the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will hold public hearings on two budget bills, one to fill an estimated $50 million budget gap in the current fiscal year, and another to fill a projected $50 million gap in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
While the details of the two budget bills are not yet public, the committee discussed a host of cuts and spending measures during a public meeting held late Wednesday. Many of them are controversial, meaning it will be difficult for the committee to form a consensus that would lead to the two-thirds majority required to circumvent LePage’s veto pen.
Nonetheless, the proposals will generate a healthy debate.
One includes raising the tax on cigarettes by $1.50, from $3 per pack to $4.50. The last increase on cigarettes occurred in 2005, according to data from Maine Revenue Services. That proposal alone would go a long way toward filling the budget gap for the current fiscal year. According to MRS, a $1 increase would generate $42 million over a two-year period. That means a $1.50 increase would yield $63 million over the same period.
Of course, a cigarette tax increase will generate plenty of resistance from tobacco companies, which are perennially big spenders in lobbying the Legislature and in legislative campaigns.
Other potentially contentious proposals include:
• Reducing the time that MaineCare recipients can receive reimbursements for suboxone and methadone treatments for drug addiction from a two-year limit to six months.
• Excluding professional services businesses – including law firms – and big box retail stores from the state’s business equipment reimbursement programs.
• Removing current sales tax exemptions for purchases made by hospitals and private colleges.
• Repealing the “super research and development” tax credit.
There are dozens more. Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, co-chairwoman of the appropriations committee, said it would be wrong to assume there’s a consensus behind advancing any of the items on the list of cuts and spending sources. Rotundo said the committee had agreed only to discuss the items and hold a public hearing.
The committee has scheduled four days of public hearings.
MEDICAID EXPANSION VOTE
The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee could vote out the newly minted Medicaid expansion bill.
The proposal, L.D. 1487, is sponsored by Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Sen. Thom Saviello, R-Wilton. It would expand the state’s Medicaid program, called MaineCare, to more than 60,000 Mainers while implementing a managed care system to overhaul the delivery of the health insurance program for the poor.
Last week, Christopher Nolan, an analyst from the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget office, said the bill would cost the state $683,520 over the first three years of expansion.
Katz’s bill includes a sunset provision that would end expansion after three years unless the Legislature reauthorizes it. The three-year sunset aligns with the 100 percent federal reimbursement rate for the more than 60,000 Mainers who would qualify for coverage through the expansion. Nolan’s estimate has empowered advocates who are beating back claims by the LePage administration that expansion will cost money, even during the 100 percent federal reimbursement period.
Nolan noted that expansion would save more than $3.4 million during the first year. If the Legislature continued coverage into the fourth year, it would cost the state $1.9 million as the federal match rate slowly draws down to 90 percent by 2020.
On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services slammed the estimates, saying Nolan dismissed the department’s data showing a larger cost increase. It’s unclear if the data DHHS is referring to come from the controversial analysis of the Alexander Group (The department said its data were its own analysis, but it technically owns the Alexander analysis, too). The Alexander analysis produced enrollment projections and costs that were sharply different from other expansion analyses, and it has come under fierce criticism for ignoring savings initiatives and for what a national analyst said was a $575 million calculation error.
The nonpartisan budget office uses raw data from each agency to draft fiscal notes for legislation. It is not uncommon for the budget office to produce a different fiscal note than one produced by an agency. It is, however, uncommon for the budget office to be criticized publicly and its motives questioned.
Nonetheless, that’s exactly what DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew did Friday while attacking Nolan’s projections, saying he “presented phantom savings that cannot be substantiated. One must question the motivation of doing so and the integrity of the process.”
Jane Orbeton, an analyst for the Health and Human Services Committee, recently came under fire after a conservative blogger for the Maine Heritage Policy Center obtained a series of emails that raised questions about whether the nonpartisan analyst was siding with Democrats.
Orbeton’s emails have prompted Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, to request an investigation by the Government Oversight Committee into whether other analysts at the Office of Policy and Legal Analysis are engaging in partisan activity.
OPLA analysts are legal advisers to legislative committees. They are responsible for advising lawmakers as they craft legislation that could become law.
Orbeton is accused of drafting talking points for Democratic lawmakers. In one email, the analyst appears to ask a lobbyist to erase one of her messages, raising questions about whether her request constituted the willful destruction of a public record, a a Class D misdemeanor.
Orbeton also asked an employee from Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for the poor, why no one had sued the Department of Health and Human Services over the failed MaineCare rides system.
“It is necessary for the integrity of our Legislature and the trust between parties and between elected members and staff to investigate the extent to which nonpartisan staff has engaged in partisan activity,” Davis wrote in his email to the oversight panel. “This kind of activity shakes the public’s confidence in our ability to maintain a wall of separation between politics and policymaking in key areas of state government.”
The panel must approve Davis’ request to initiate an investigation by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
The war of words between Gov. Paul LePage and Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, just keeps raging.
Last week, following the release of a report which found that LePage had wrongfully interefered with the impartial unemployment appeals process by calling quasi-judicial hearing officers to the Blaine House for what one attendee described as a “group scolding,” Jackson called for the governor’s impeachment.
“I can’t imagine the hubris it takes to use political office to subvert an agency trying to follow a law,” Jackson tweeted.
Jackson backed off his call for impeachment when asked about it Friday at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport. However, he did address some comments made by LePage, who attended the same event. The governor jokingly told reporters that he was endorsing Jackson’s bid for the 2nd Congressional District.
Jackson later told reporters, “I do not want the governor’s endorsement. … That is something that will sink anyone’s campaign.”
Nonetheless, it appears Jackson has figured out that taking on LePage in public is a good way to elevate his profile.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: