AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage intensified his public relations push Wednesday to pay off the state’s hospital debt, releasing a three-minute online video featuring individuals at a Manchester gas station agreeing the state should pay off its $484 million debt to Maine’s hospitals.
The video, titled “Mainers Weigh In: Should the State Pay its Debt?,” features on-camera interviews with more than half a dozen people filling their gas tanks at Manchester’s J&S Oil station on U.S. Route 202. None of the people in the video are identified, and no opposing viewpoints are offered.
LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, conducted the interviews, and her black-gloved hand holding a microphone can be seen in some of the interviews. The governor’s office used equipment from the Maine Department of Transportation to produce the YouTube video, Bennett said. She said the interviews took about an hour to conduct.
“We can’t continue spending money that we don’t have,” says one woman in the video. “We can’t continue with obligations we don’t pay.”
“I think all debts need to be paid off at some point in time,” says a man pumping gas in the video. “It’s something I hope the parties work together on and try to resolve.”
The video ends with LePage standing in front of the State House saying, “I stand with Maine people. We need to pay our bills.”
The state’s hospital debt has become the topic of intense debate at the State House in recent weeks. LePage on Friday and again on Wednesday said in interviews that he would veto any bill approved by the Legislature, including his own, until lawmakers pass his plan to pay off the state’s hospitals by renegotiating the state’s liquor contract.
Republicans have pounced on Democrats’ hesitation to embrace the hospital debt payoff and accused the party’s leaders of stalling LePage’s bill and not quickly scheduling a hearing.
The Maine Republican Party also released a video earlier this week of Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, in a 2008 interview suggesting the Legislature might have to balance the budget that year in part by delaying hospital payments.
Democrats have responded in kind, denouncing what Assistant House Minority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, on Wednesday called the “hostile” approach taken by LePage and Republican legislators.
The state’s share of the hospital debt — which has accrued since 2009 for services hospitals provided under the state’s Medicaid program but for which they weren’t fully reimbursed — is about $186 million. The $186 million payment from the state would trigger a $298 million payment from the federal government.
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. Democrats, however, have been hesitant to embrace the debt payoff plan.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in early February that the hospital debt repayment and liquor contract renegotiation should be considered separately, not as part of the same bill. And Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall of Richmond recently introduced a competing liquor contract proposal that sets out terms for renewing the state’s wholesale liquor contract but includes no plan for repaying the hospital debt.
Goodall said Friday that paying off the hospital debt is a priority for Democrats, although the party’s legislative leaders haven’t set out a specific plan for paying it back. It’s among several priorities that also include funding for public schools and infrastructure, Goodall said.
A public hearing on LePage’s bill is now scheduled for Monday, the same day as the hearing for Goodall’s liquor contract bill.
For LePage, Wednesday’s YouTube video isn’t the first. In January, his office released a video featuring Bennett, his press secretary, interviewing the governor about income tax cuts passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011.