AUGUSTA, Maine — The Senate chairwoman of the budget-writing committee on Sunday declined to allow Gov. Paul LePage to address the panel about a fast-approaching deadline the Legislature faces so the Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t run out of money for payments to care providers.
The exchange between LePage and Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, happened at the end of a rare Sunday session that Appropriations Committee members used to question Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew about a Friday letter she wrote to LePage alerting him that her department has enough money to pay its bills to providers through June 10 — 20 days before the end of this fiscal year.
In the letter to LePage, Mayhew said lawmakers need to pass a budget by May 28 so her department can make its payments.
LePage approached the microphone to address the committee after members questioned Mayhew and Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett, and Hill declined to allow the governor to speak.
“I think there are a lot of politics around this committee,” Hill said. “I think what happened here today was good and we ended on a very good note.”
“Are you saying that the governor of the state of Maine is not welcome to address the Appropriations Committee?” LePage asked.
“We hadn’t expected you, and what we had to accomplish was accomplished,” Hill said, adding that she would be open to speaking with LePage outside committee meetings. “It’s best to end it on a high note, and I think that’s where we were.”
“Outside this committee won’t happen unless I have a way to speak,” LePage responded. “I want to get on the record, and this committee is not allowing it. The people of the state of Maine are being played for patsies.”
Mayhew’s letter Friday prompted a more terse letter from LePage to legislative leaders in which he called on Democrats to propose an alternative to his unpopular budget proposal. He also criticized them for pursuing an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act while the state struggles to afford its current Medicaid program.
In two committee votes last week, Democrats voted to tie repaying the state’s $484 million debt to its hospitals to an expansion of Medicaid, a link LePage and many other Republicans have opposed.
On Sunday, Democrats on the appropriations panel criticized Mayhew for a lapse in communication that resulted in committee members learning of the May 28 deadline at 5 p.m. Friday through a letter addressed to Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick.
“It just strikes me as sort of odd timing and political in nature,” said Rep. Megan Rochelo, D-Biddeford.
“I can’t remember anytime recently when we’ve voted out a budget by May 28. There shouldn’t have been an expectation we would have voted out a budget by May 28, particularly this budget,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the committee’s House chairwoman. “For that not to have been articulated to us, that that was going to be a problem, is very perplexing to me and disturbing to me.”
Mayhew told committee members they shouldn’t be surprised to learn her department could soon have insufficient funds for Medicaid-related payments in the final weeks of the fiscal year. There could be flexibility around the May 28 deadline, she added, but additional funds need to be allocated soon.
The LePage administration said earlier this month that the Department of Health and Human Services would need additional funding to make it through the final weeks of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
And the administration on May 8 rolled out a package of changes to the governor’s biennial budget proposal that includes $35 million so the Department of Health and Human Services can meet its immediate needs.
While they hadn’t heard the May 28 deadline, Republican members of the committee said they were aware DHHS needed additional funding to make it through the fiscal year.
“The damage that’s been done seems to be more political, I guess,” said Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop. “There’s been some technique that’s a little different. It seems if we can get past that, the fixing of it, we’re pretty good at it, and we can do this.”
Millett, the finance commissioner, said committee members can decide to pass the extra DHHS funding as part of the two-year budget they’re working on or split the immediate funding request into an emergency budget that can make its way to LePage’s desk more quickly.
“The bottom line is, I think, we want to get it done,” Millett said. “The providers are waiting and watching to see whether they get paid.”