AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday said Democrats are depending on a “sugar daddy” to pay back Maine’s hospitals through their hospital debt payment plan, and he vowed to veto a bill that would allow bars to open at 6 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day when the holiday falls on a Sunday.
In a morning television interview on Fox 23, LePage said he didn’t understand a plan put forward by Democrats on Monday that ties paying back Maine’s $484 million hospital debt to renegotiating the state’s wholesale liquor contract.
The Democrats’ proposal came nearly two months after LePage introduced a competing plan that also ties the hospital debt repayment to a renegotiated state wholesale liquor contract.
“I’ve been looking at their plan and I don’t understand it,” he said. “They’ve found someone who is going to give them $200 million, work for 10 years to get their $200 million back, and that’s it.”
LePage’s plan proposes paying back the state’s debt to its 39 hospitals by taking out a revenue bond backed by the state’s future liquor profits. Those liquor profits would come from a renegotiated contract with a private company that would operate the state’s wholesale liquor business and direct more of the profits to state coffers. The plan also includes measures to reduce retail prices to make Maine’s liquor business more competitive with New Hampshire’s and to grow profit margins for the state’s agency liquor stores.
The Democrats’ plan requires $200 million in upfront payments from the winning liquor contractor by July 30, 2015, and promises to pay off the hospital debt by Sept. 30 of this year. The state’s share of the $484 million hospital debt is $186 million, which would trigger a $298 million matching payment from the federal government.
“I don’t think my plan is more complicated. I would say my plan works,” LePage said. “They’re looking for a sugar daddy to give them $200 million that will work for nothing for 10 years. I don’t think that’s going to work.”
Democrats have criticized LePage’s hospital repayment plan on multiple fronts, saying that using a revenue bond to pay back the hospitals will cost the state millions of dollars in interest payments and questioning whether the plan is constitutional.
Sen. Seth Goodall of Richmond, the Democratic Senate leader, said Wednesday his plan assures the state will end up with a qualified wholesale liquor contractor because the legislation sets out specific requirements.
“We need to make sure we get bidders that are qualified both financially as well as with the skill sets that are necessary,” he said.
Goodall and other Democrats also have questioned whether it’s constitutional to use a bond to pay the debt, citing a 2009 opinion from Attorney General Janet Mills that determined hospital debt payments were a “current expenditure,” and therefore something that couldn’t be funded with bonds.
In addition to paying off the hospital debt, Democrats also have said they want to see long-term health care system reforms. “If we don’t fix the health care system in the long term, we don’t want to end up back where we are today,” Goodall said.
LePage has made it his top priority to pay back Maine’s hospital debt. He testified Monday at public hearings for his bill.
“Their plan was a last-minute plan put in at 9:30 on a Monday morning,” LePage said. “I think they must have slept late because the plan didn’t make sense to me.”
LePage has pledged more than once in recent weeks to veto all legislation that comes across his desk until lawmakers pass his hospital debt plan. Asked about that threat Wednesday, LePage did vow to veto at least one bill, LD 216, a proposal to allow alcoholic beverages to be served three hours earlier on St. Patrick’s Day when the holiday falls on Sunday. Sponsored by Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, who amended it to remove the emergency language that would have allowed the legislation to take effect this year, the bill has gotten caught up in the hospital debt debate.
“I think the bill is far more important to the Maine people than to be discussing opening up a bar on St. Paddy’s Day at 7 a.m.,” LePage said. “Yes, I would veto that bill. If they’re going to send that kind of garbage to me before they send me legitimate legislation, then bad bills need to be vetoed.”
Lawmakers have sent LePage at least six bills so far after passing them unanimously. Legislators in the House on Tuesday tabled the St. Patrick’s Day measure.
“I haven’t seen anything,” LePage said Wednesday. “They haven’t done anything so far.”
The governor has until March 19 to either sign, veto or let the legislation take effect without his signature.
LePage also discussed an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program in the interview. While he has long opposed expanding the low-income health insurance program under the federal Affordable Care Act, his administration this week began discussing the possibility of an expansion with federal officials.
He said Wednesday he needs assurances from the federal government that it won’t back away from increased Medicaid funding levels in the future before he agrees to an expansion of the program. He blamed past expansions of the Maine Medicaid program under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, in part, for the hospital debt.
“I want to see the long-term aspect, not the short-term,” he said. “It’s one thing to say we’ll pay 100 percent the first year, but I need to have assurances that the federal government is going to be serious about paying long-term Medicaid costs.”
A number of other Republican governors have recently said they would support expanding Medicaid in their states under the federal health care reform law.