The Maine Senate on Tuesday failed to override Gov. Paul Le Page’s veto of a bill that would have attempted to fix the troubled MaineCare rides program by replacing out-of-state contractors with local nonprofit groups. The Republican governor claimed the bill, if it became law, would have harmed Maine’s business climate and made the state less attractive to potential contractors.

The vote along party lines in the Democratic-controlled Senate was 20-15, which did not reach the two-thirds majority necessary for a successful override.

The bill would have canceled contracts and mandated that local companies receive substantial bid preferences to win the contracts that coordinate MaineCare rides. Before the system’s overhaul last year, a patchwork of local nonprofits arranged and provided the rides, with few complaints. The system was changed to meet federal guidelines on transparency and accountability to prevent potential fraud.

Pam Lee, a York County activist whose adult daughter receives MaineCare rides, said she felt “disappointed” and “defeated” after hearing about the vote.

“It’s tragic,” Lee said. “It’s like nobody’s voice was heard.” Lee said her daughter often has to wait hours for her rides.

Since the rollout of changes to the system in August – bringing in out-of-state contractors to coordinate rides – thousands of low-income Mainers have missed their free rides to medical appointments. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced in January that it wasn’t renewing contracts totaling $28.3 million for the major contractor, Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions, due to subpar performance. However, Democrats said the LePage administration did not go far enough to address the new system’s shortcomings.

“They did the absolute bare minimum,” said Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, House chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

In his veto letter to the Legislature, LePage accused Democrats of meddling with the executive branch’s role and said the law would have discouraged businesses from bidding on state contracts.

“What company would want to bid on a Maine request for proposals or enter into a contract with the State if they felt the Legislature would – on a whim – cancel the request, terminate the contract or defund vendor payments? Without some acceptable level of certainty, no business would take that risk,” LePage wrote.

Farnsworth said it’s the Legislature’s role to fix problems the executive branch doesn’t address.

“Someone has to step in and speak up for the people of the state of Maine,” he said.

LePage went on to argue that the quality of bids would decline if the bill became law.

“That is an irresponsible and unacceptable business decision for the state of Maine,” LePage wrote.

Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville and a co-sponsor of the bill, said the rides program was “not a wise use of taxpayer money.”

“The people with the least amount of power are the ones most harmed by this system,” Lachowicz said. She said fixing the system should have been a bipartisan issue.

DHHS is currently reviewing bids submitted for the Maine- Care rides program in eight regions of the state. Six local nonprofits bid on work in five of those regions. The Portland region does not have a local bidder, and the state renewed the contract in York County for Georgia-based LogistiCare Solutions. The Bangor region already has a local contractor, Penquis Community Action Agency, and that region was also not open for bidding.

Coordinated Transportation Solutions, despite being criticized for its poor performance by state officials, legislators and patients, submitted bids in all six regions.

The contracts are expected to be awarded in the coming weeks for work to begin July 1.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: @joelawlorph