VIDEO

LePage supporters’ hospital debt ad ignites political firestorm

Posted April 04, 2013, at 7:33 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A new television ad from Maine People Before Politics, a group that supports Republican Gov. Paul LePage, inflamed partisan hostilities in Augusta and across Maine’s political spectrum Thursday.

The ad criticizes LePage’s predecessor, Democrat John Baldacci, for leaving behind a Medicaid “welfare” debt to the state’s 39 hospitals and encourages Mainers to urge their legislators to support LePage’s plan to repay the balance of that Medicaid debt. A release accompanying the ad directs people to an online petition at www.NoHospitalDebt.org.

BDN blogger and former Democratic state senator Ethan Strimling reported that Maine People Before Politics will pay $41,775 to air the ad statewide beginning Thursday.

Baldacci, who has said he would consider another run for governor in 2014, responded to the ad with a statement Thursday. He also plans to make himself available to the media at 9:15 a.m. Friday at Gracie Theatre on the Husson University campus in Bangor.

“Gov. LePage prefers to fight rather than govern,” Baldacci said in the statement. “There’s bipartisan agreement on the need to repay the hospitals, but the governor can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer. The governor should be focused on the state budget, where his plans would raise property taxes, cut education and hurt the economy. It’s so bad, Republicans can’t support it as it is.”

Maine’s hospital debt, which now stands at roughly $484 million, with a state share of approximately $186 million, began to accumulate before Baldacci’s governorship, which ran from 2003 to 2011. Democrats consistently emphasize that point and the fact that Baldacci made efforts to begin reducing state government’s debt to Maine hospitals.

In 2006, Baldacci struck a deal with the Maine Hospital Association that put hospitals first in line for any surplus funds at the end of a budget year. Baldacci and hospital officials expected the arrangement would yield $82 million in state funds by 2010 that could be leveraged into a $221 million Medicaid debt paydown with federal matching funds included.

Four years later, LePage made a campaign issue of paying back the state’s hospitals, and, during his first months in office in 2011, he negotiated a supplemental budget that included $66.8 million in state funds for the hospitals, which translated into a $247 million total payment with federal funds. That payment brought Maine’s debt current through the first half of 2009. The existing debt dates to mid-2009.

In Thursday’s release, Baldacci rejected the ad’s suggestion that his administration’s failure to pay the full hospital debt forced layoffs.

“At the height of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Democrats and Republicans came together on a bipartisan plan that put the hospitals first in line,” Baldacci said in the prepared statement. “We did it to ensure that Maine people would have access to the care they needed and to prevent hospital layoffs.”

Democrats and Republicans in Augusta joined the fray Thursday morning. The office of House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, issued a release that suggested LePage’s allies were attempting to shift public focus from his proposed $6.3 billion biennial budget, which includes a suspension of municipal revenue sharing and other measures that Democrats have blasted as tax shifts to property tax payers.

“The governor and his allies are desperate to distract Maine people from his highly unpopular budget, which will result in property tax hikes across the state,” House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said in the release.

“So far, the governor has signed four bills and gone on two vacations. Now, he’s launching a campaign 19 months before an election,” said Assistant Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan. “This is just more do-nothing politics.”

The Maine Republican Party seized on the “do-nothing politics” theme.

“Probably the only thing more embarrassing than Maine’s history of not paying our hospital debts at this moment in time is that Democrat leadership in the State House just decided to drop everything to attack a nonprofit group,” Maine GOP Chairman Rich Cebra said in a statement. “Another week of do-nothing politics, small ball legislation and more proof that Maine Democrats are putting politics before good public policy.”

Noting that Democrats in the Legislature have “voted on or reported out 462 bills,” Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for Eves, said in an email, “We’ve sent 47 bills to the governor for his signature. He has 32 bills sitting on his desk now and $105 million in bonds awaiting action. … We hope the governor and Republicans will stop the political maneuvering and get to work.”

The Maine Democratic Party also chimed in. Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said “Let’s call this what it really is — a campaign ad. Right now, Paul LePage is in serious jeopardy of losing his re-election bid next year, so his campaign is desperate to find an issue to try to revive his standing with Maine voters.”

Citing public education, property taxes and health insurance, Grant said LePage is on the “wrong side of almost every big issue right now. It’s no wonder his donors wanted to stay anonymous.”

Maine People Before Politics shot back with a statement that the organization is not a political committee but rather a nonprofit organization similar to the Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal group whose communications director Mike Tipping wrote a BDN blog Thursday that called Maine People Before Politics “basically an unaccountable super PAC.”

Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political adviser, also took issue with Democrats’ characterization of the Republican governor’s position on property taxes and education.

“Gov. LePage has never supported raising property taxes, he cut taxes as Waterville’s mayor,” Littlefield wrote in an email to the BDN. “In his first year in office while other governors cut education funding, Gov. LePage increased funding for K-12 education. Gov. LePage is grappling with an out-of-control state budget built on years of avoiding the hard choices.”

The 2014 gubernatorial election is 579 days from Thursday.

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