AUGUSTA — A political organization that backs Gov. Paul LePage has released a statewide television ad urging lawmakers to back the governor’s plan to repay $484 million in backlogged Medicaid payments to Maine’s hospitals.

The ad also takes a swipe at former Gov. John Baldacci, who has expressed interest in running for governor in 2014. The ad, purchased by Maine People Before Politics, says Baldacci is responsible for the debt, which it claims caused layoffs and jeopardized health care for “seniors and families.”

The Medicaid debt began accumulating years before Baldacci took office in 2003. It has been attributed to a payment system that didn’t keep pace with hospitals’ Medicaid claims to the state.

Baldacci and the Legislature made payments that sent $3.7 billion to hospitals over the last decade, but not enough to erase the debt.

The ad also attacks Baldacci for authorizing a 10-year wholesale liquor contract with Maine Beverage Co.

LePage’s hospital payback plan would use a 10-year bond authorized by the Legislature to pay off the state’s $184 million share of the debt. As soon as the state pays the hospitals, the balance will flow to the state’s 39 hospitals in federal matching funds.

LePage plans to use revenue from a new liquor contract to pay off the bond.

Democratic lawmakers have said they’re committed to paying back the state’s hospitals and have released a counter-proposal that they say would pay the hospitals by September.

The ad underscores the political battle over the hospital debt, an issue that LePage used to great effect when he ran for governor in 2010.

This year the governor raised the issue again, taking his case on the road during a high-profile tour of Lewiston and Auburn. During the tour, the governor spoke from a lectern adorned with the state seal with the words “pay our bills” overlapping the traditional “Dirigo.”

Democrats attacked the ad Thursday as a “divisive” stunt to distract attention from LePage’s two-year budget proposal.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a news release that the ad undermines “productive efforts to find common ground on critical issues.”

“The governor is playing politics instead of working with lawmakers to help Maine’s economy,” Eves said. “We agree with the governor and the hospitals that this debt should be repaid, and we look forward to putting a bill on his desk that will do just that. Enough politics — let’s do the work.”

Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said: “So far, the governor has signed four bills and gone on two vacations. Now, he’s launching a campaign 19 months before an election. This is just more do-nothing politics.”

Charlie Gaunce, president of the Maine People Before Politics board of directors, said in a statement that the hospital debt is “an embarrassment.”

“Our hospitals cannot treat the sick or create and sustain jobs while the state owes this large welfare debt,” Gaunce said. “Governor LePage has put together a creative and brilliant proposal that pays this welfare debt off in full, without any significant delays, by transparently putting the state’s liquor contract out to bid. It pays our hospitals without any job-killing tax increases.”

Baldacci, responding in a news release, said the television spot is “a misleading, political attack ad.”

“Gov. LePage prefers to fight rather than govern,” Baldacci said. “There’s bipartisan agreement on the need to repay the hospitals, but the governor can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer. The governor should be focused on the state budget, where his plans would raise property taxes, cut education and hurt the economy. It’s so bad, Republicans can’t support it as it is.”

He added, “This type of partisanship and attack politics might get Gov. LePage’s base excited, but it’s no way to govern.”

Maine People Before Politics began as the organization that helped fund the governor’s transition to office. Initially, it disclosed its donors, which included corporations and trade groups such as the Maine Hospital Association.

It’s now unclear how much each organization has given to Maine People Before Politics. The group is a nonprofit organization, so it doesn’t have to fully disclose its donors.

The Maine Democratic Party described the group as a “Super PAC,” a reference to the “dark money” groups that have operated at the national level and tried to influence elections.

LePage was asked about the ad after a speaking event for Augusta Kiwanis at the Senator Inn. He said he was unaware that the ad was running and looked to his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, for an explanation.

“You know more than I do,” he said to Bennett, laughing. “How come I’m always the last one to know?”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

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