AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — With the threat of a veto looming, the Maine Senate nevertheless gave final approval Thursday to a bill to pay off a $484 million debt to Maine hospitals while expanding Medicaid to tens of thousands of uninsured people.
The Senate passed the bill in a 20-15 party-line vote and sent the measure to Gov. Paul LePage, whose objections to it were already well-known. At a public ceremony in the State House, the governor signed a letter explaining his planned veto just minutes after it won Senate approval. He also submitted a new bill to pay the hospital debt, without the Medicaid expansion.
The governor and his fellow Republicans oppose linking repayment of the hospital debt, an issue LePage has championed since his 2010 campaign, to Medicaid expansion, which Republicans say needs further examination.
A veto was so certain that after the Senate vote, Democratic leaders urged Mainers to contact their legislators and ask them to override LePage's action when the bill comes up as expected next Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Republican House leader Ken Fredette of Newport introduced a compromise on the issue of Medicaid expansion as GOP leaders said their legislators were united and will uphold the veto.
In making a pitch for an override, Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick chided LePage for missing out on a big win by refusing to deal with Democrats.
"In a divided government, you cannot demand all or nothing. Governor Paul LePage had an opportunity to prove to Maine people he could compromise," Eves said. "He failed."
The bill seeks to make the final payment of $484 million in state and federal dollars to Maine hospitals. Democrats say the hospitals would also receive an additional $163 million a year in federal funds for treating newly insured Maine residents if the state accepts the federal Medicaid money. The government says Maine would get 100 percent federal funds for Medicaid expansion for three years, followed by a 90 percent match.
But Republicans remain concerned that the federal government, which is deeply in debt, will not live up to any funding levels it promises, said Richard Cebra, chair of the Maine Republican Party.
"Maine taxpayers still can't afford the last massive welfare increase that was pushed on them, but Democrats want to do it again," said Cebra. "(Maine) just can't afford another massive increase in welfare with no long term plan to pay for it."
With the veto hanging, Fredette said his compromise bill creates an opportunity to determine what's in Mainers' best interest over the long term. His bill would set up a 13-member study group, which would include five Senate and five House members, a member representing the health industry, one appointed by the governor and a representative from the state Department of Health and Human Services.