May 22, 2018
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Fix Maine budget, hospital debt through compromise

By Phil Bartlett, Special to the BDN

Because the governor would rather fight than lead, he is missing an opportunity to govern, and Maine people are missing out on solutions that can improve their lives. That is too high a cost to pay whether you are a Republican, a Democrat or independent.

Consider the current debate at the State House, which seems to be heading toward a stalemate. However, a closer look at the competing priorities suggests an opportunity to take a comprehensive approach to solving our state’s challenges.

First, Gov. Paul LePage wants to pay off the debt owed to hospitals. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers agree that the debt should be paid. Democrats in the Legislature have also offered a plan to expand Medicaid — known as MaineCare in Maine — by accepting $300 million from the federal government while also reforming hospital billing to reduce costs and improve outcomes. If we reject the federal offer, then all those tax dollars — our tax dollars — would simply go to another state.

Why not bring that money to Maine where it can strengthen our health-care system, improve the care of our elderly, children and families and make a real difference? Republican governors across the country, from Arizona to New Jersey, are eagerly accepting their share of new funds to expand health care. Why not our governor?

When we’re talking about money and Maine’s budget, you can be sure there is more to say. The governor’s proposed two-year budget eliminates revenue sharing from state-collected funds to all of our Maine towns and cities. Both Republican and Democratic legislators have expressed outrage at losing money their town governments need. Most legislators agree that eliminating revenue sharing does nothing more than shift the state’s budget problems to local towns and property taxpayers.

These three big issues should be at the heart of the budget conversation in Augusta.

Unfortunately, Maine’s governor is pushing a single priority to the exclusion of all others and shouting down other voices. He’s creating a standoff rather than standing up and leading.

Maine needs its governor to bring the parties together to craft a larger deal. In fact, the central priorities the governor and legislative leaders in both parties have been talking about offer a path to compromise.

First, negotiate a liquor contract to get the best value for Maine taxpayers without getting too distracted by how the money will be spent. And let’s avoid the mistake of the 2004 negotiation, which proved to be a bad deal for the state. Let’s set out to get the best deal for Maine people by generating the most revenue from the state liquor contract.

Second, incorporate the liquor contract proceeds as well as hospital funding into budget negotiations. Together, the Legislature and the governor could establish an expedited repayment schedule for the hospital debt while also accepting money from the federal government to expand MaineCare. Doing so would help hospitals, insurers and Maine people by reducing bad debt and charity care, which we all pay for through higher health-care costs. The Democratic proposal to reform hospital billing practices to increase transparency and improve outcomes should also be incorporated to reduce costs and improve quality of health care going forward.

Finally, the budget deal should avoid reductions in revenue sharing. Most everyone recognizes that cutting revenue to towns only shifts costs to property taxpayers. Doing so in order to pay back hospitals in a massive lump sum or to lower state income taxes by fractional amounts is foolishly shortsighted.

Let’s talk about the big picture and how additional liquor contract revenue could help improve Maine’s total budget.

The bottom line is that it is easier to solve our challenges by taking a comprehensive approach and recognizing the value in the priorities emphasized by all parties to the negotiation. That’s a conversation all Maine people can benefit from, understand and participate in. It can’t begin with threats and shouts, and it need not end with standoffs and government shutdowns.

We need a governor who will pull a chair up to the table and invite legislative leaders to join him in talking through priorities, compromises and solutions. We’re all waiting to hear a governor say, “Let’s get this done together. Because that’s how Maine people work.”

Phil Bartlett, of Gorham, is an attorney at Scaccia, Bartlett & Chabot, as well as a former state senator and a member of the Democratic National Committee.

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