Republican Gov. Paul LePage tentatively has tossed support behind legislative initiatives proposed this week by Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves that aim to keep Maine’s seniors in their homes and communities longer and avoid more costly long-term care options.
LePage commented on the KeepME Home initiatives on Thursday morning, when he surprised WVOM radio talk show hosts George Hale and Ric Tyler with an impromptu call. Eves, who was scheduled to talk with the hosts, called in immediately afterward. Both men are up for re-election in November.
LePage questioned some aspects of Eves’ initiatives, but he said he’s basically “all in on” proposals to borrow $65 million to build 1,000 units of subsidized senior housing, to increase property tax credits for older Mainers and to increase Medicaid reimbursements for home care workers.
“I’m all in on that,” LePage said. “I’m ready and waiting.”
The radio hosts noted that when Eves announced the KeepME Home initiatives on Wednesday, the speaker said he hoped to get “bipartisan buy-in” to develop and submit related legislation in January.
“He’s getting it today,” LePage said emphatically.
LePage asked why Eves’ proposal calls for issuing $65 million in general obligation bonds, which would require legislative and voter approval. He suggested that Eves talk with officials at the Maine State Housing Authority and consider using their bonding authority to fund the senior housing initiative.
“They have the resources to do it,” LePage said. “We’d be more than happy to do it.”
Maine needs about 8,000 units of subsidized senior housing by 2015, according to a Maine State Housing Authority report.
LePage’s vocal support for a possible bond measure marks a significant shift for the governor. He blocked bond issues for two years, from early 2011 until mid-2013, including federally backed, tax-exempt bonds issued by the authority that trigger 4 percent low-income housing tax credits, which developers use to build subsidized housing.
The bond moratorium was part of LePage’s effort to control the state’s debt, though tax-exempt bonds are considered a helpful federal subsidy by most states and a good, low-risk investment by private investors. The moratorium caused developers to cancel or delay many housing projects and created a backlog of about 13 planned senior housing projects across the state.
Housing development resumed after LePage agreed last summer to issue bonds once again, said Greg Payne, coordinator of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition. All three gubernatorial candidates, including Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, have met with the coalition and expressed their support for bonding to build affordable housing. Michaud also issued a statement on Thursday supporting the KeepME Home initiatives.
On Thursday’s radio show, LePage also said he’d like to review all reimbursement rates paid by MaineCare, the state’s form of Medicaid, and he acknowledged that rates paid to service providers often don’t cover actual costs.
Reimbursement rates for home care workers have been stagnant for a decade, so most agencies pay about $9 an hour, without benefits or mileage reimbursement, which makes it difficult to attract and keep employees and has resulted in long waiting lists for some services.
Eves’ initiatives also call for boosting annual property tax credits for seniors — which the Legislature increased from $400 to $900 this year —c loser to the maximum $1,600 allowed a few years ago.
“I’m all open to look at it and see if we can make it work,” LePage said.
LePage took a few political jabs at Eves, saying that he wanted to thank him personally and on the air “for seeing the light on helping the elderly. For two years I’ve been battling this battle … and they’re finally seeing the light.”
Until recently, none of the state’s top elected leaders had announced initiatives or taken action specifically to address the challenges facing Maine because it has a rapidly growing senior population.
Maine is the oldest state based on median age (43.5 years) and the second-oldest based on the proportion of people 65 and older (17 percent), according to the U.S. Census. Florida is No. 1 with 18.2 percent. Maine also has the highest proportion of baby boomers — 29 percent of its 1.3 million residents were born in the period from 1946 to 1964. By 2030, more than 25 percent of Mainers will be 65 or older.
The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram’s ongoing investigative series, The Challenge of Our Age, has uncovered existing shortages in senior housing, home care, long-term care, transportation and other areas that threaten to cripple the state economically and socially as its senior population grows.
When the newspaper launched the series in July 2013, LePage declined to be interviewed. Instead, a spokesperson referred to the state’s aging plan, a federal report that’s updated every four years to identify problem areas and set goals for change but requires no action.
Eves, of North Berwick, drew statewide attention to aging issues when he and the Maine Council on Aging hosted four nonpartisan roundtable forums last fall, followed by the daylong Maine Summit on Aging in January, which attracted about 370 people of all stripes from across the state.
The KeepME Home initiatives grew out of those gatherings and working groups that were established to develop policy proposals intended to make Maine communities more welcoming to people of all ages.
Eves said the initiatives will be fleshed out in the months ahead and submitted to the Legislature early next year as part of a larger package of aging-related bills. He also hopes to build bipartisan support by creating an “aging caucus” of like-minded legislators.
When Eves spoke with the radio hosts on Thursday, he welcomed LePage’s support, saying that it was hard won.
“That’s fantastic,” Eves said. “We’d love to work with him on it. It’s something we’ve been working on for the last 18 months.”
Eves answered the governor’s jabs about seeing the light on aging issues.
“I would just have to return the volley to the governor and say I’m glad he’s seen the light around bonds,” Eves said. “I hope that we can work together on this.”