AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Friday promised to veto any bill that comes across his desk until the Legislature passes his plan to repay $484 million owed to the state’s hospitals.
“I don’t care if it’s my bills. I’ll veto my own bills,” LePage said on the George Hale and Ric Tyler show on WVOM radio. “The top priority right now, and the only thing I’m interested in talking about is, let’s pay the hospitals, and then we’ll sit down and make a plan for the future.”
The comments sparked a partisan battle Friday afternoon at the State House among Democrats who accused LePage and Republicans of threatening to bring government to a standstill and Republicans who accused their Democratic counterparts of stalling a plan to repay the hospital debt.
LePage partially retreated from his comments later Friday afternoon, saying in a meeting with Republican leaders that he would consider signing bills with broad, bipartisan support and measures that promote job creation before the hospital debt legislation is passed.
LePage in January announced a proposal to renegotiate the state’s wholesale liquor contract and use the proceeds to pay off Maine’s hospital debt, which dates back to 2009 for services hospitals delivered to patients receiving MaineCare but for which they haven’t been fully reimbursed. Under his proposal, the state would take out a revenue bond to pay down the hospital debt immediately and use profits from the state’s wholesale liquor business to pay off the revenue bond.
The state’s share of the hospital debt is $186 million. Paying it off would trigger a $298 million matching payment from the federal government. Once the hospitals are paid, LePage also said he would release $105 million in bonds that have been authorized by voters but not yet issued and a $100 million bond to fund the construction of a new state prison in Windham.
LePage’s proposal arrived at the Legislature in bill form at the start of February, and Republicans have accused Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature, of stalling the bill. A public hearing notice released earlier this week listed the hearing as being scheduled for March 11 before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.
In addition to LePage’s proposal, the committee will hear testimony the same day on a competing liquor contract proposal from Senate Democratic Leader Seth Goodall of Richmond that sets out terms for renewing the state’s wholesale liquor contract but includes no plan for repaying the hospital debt.
LePage on Friday accused Democratic leadership of not making it a priority to repay the state’s hospitals. Legislative leadership can act quickly when they want to, he said, pointing to the swift passage last week of a temporary measure that shields the personal information of concealed weapons permit holders from the state’s freedom of information laws. He also highlighted Thursday’s initial passage in the House of a bill sponsored by Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, that would allow bars to open at 6 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day when the holiday falls on a Sunday.
If that measure passes and is signed into law, it can take effect immediately because it’s an emergency measure. St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday this year. Passage of emergency legislation requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature, which also would be required to override a gubernatorial veto.
“If that’s more important than paying the hospitals, I think we have a problem,” LePage said of the St. Patrick’s Day bill. “If they can pass legislation in 24 hours, I don’t see why the hospitals haven’t been passed and the money not in the hands of the hospitals. And until they move forward on that, I’m not moving forward on any legislation.”
LePage’s promise to veto any legislation that precedes his hospital debt plan drew a sharp rebuke from legislative Democrats, who also condemned House Republican Leader Kenneth Fredette’s recent comments saying that upcoming budget battles could lead to a state government shutdown.
“We’re calling on Republicans to reject this do-nothing politics,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, the assistant Democratic House leader. “We have important work to do. We’re calling on Republicans to reject this veto spree.”
Democrats didn’t outline a plan Friday for repaying the state’s hospitals or for spending increased revenue to the state from a renegotiated liquor deal. But Goodall said the hospital debt repayment is among several priorities lawmakers need to balance, which also include funding for public schools and infrastructure projects.
“We have to balance these interests,” Goodall said.
Goodall also called on LePage to spell out more details surrounding his plan to strike a new liquor deal.
“He has some serious flaws with what he wants to do with the revenue, some constitutional questions,” Goodall said.
Republican leaders, during their own Friday afternoon news conference, didn’t say whether they agreed with LePage’s promise to veto all legislation before the passage of the hospital debt repayment plan.
“I certainly understand the governor’s frustration that Democrats continue to stall that very important piece of legislation,” said Sen. Michael Thibodeau of Winterport, the Senate Republican leader. “It seems like they can’t put up enough roadblocks.”
“We’re legislators. We’re in a separate branch. Our responsibility here is to deal with legislative issues. We will continue the normal, ongoing legislative process,” said Fredette, the House Republican leader. “The governor is a separate branch of government. I think our responsibility is to deal with what we can deal with, which is the legislative process.”
LePage said during his radio appearance that he planned to meet with Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, on Friday to inform him of his veto promise.
“The games are over now. Now we have to get serious,” LePage said. “We have to get this money into the economy, and I intend on doing that. If they don’t want to do that, that’s fine. I can’t force their hand. But I can sit back, and they might as well close down and go home because nothing else is going to get done.”
Democrats have been resistant from the start to embrace LePage’s plans to renegotiate the state’s wholesale liquor contract and use the increased revenue from the new contract to pay down the hospital debt.
House Speaker Mark Eves said in early February that the hospital debt repayment and liquor contract renegotiation should be considered separately, not as part of the same bill. That stance has prompted Republican criticism that Democrats aren’t prioritizing the hospital debt repayment.
There are no bills that have been passed by the Legislature and are now awaiting LePage’s signature. At least five bills, however, have received initial — and unanimous — passage in both the House and Senate and are awaiting final votes in both chambers.
Those bills include a Republican-sponsored measure to provide services for people with autism and other intellectual disabilities, a technical measure to fix the state’s apprenticeship laws and a bill to make educators in the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program eligible for loan forgiveness.