AUGUSTA, Maine — Medicaid expansion will again be debated by the Maine Legislature in its upcoming session, while two efforts at welfare reform championed by Republicans are off the agenda, at least for now.
The Legislative Council, made up of the top lawmakers from the Maine House and Senate — six Democrats and four Republicans — assembled Wednesday to settle on the legislative agenda for the second regular session, which begins in January. Under the Maine Constitution, the second session is reserved for emergency and budget bills only.
About one-quarter of the nearly 400 bills proposed by lawmakers were approved by the council.
Among those accepted by the Council are a bill by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, aimed at expanding Medicaid to roughly 70,000 Mainers under a provision of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Eves’ bill was supported by the six Democrats on the Council, as well as Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta.
Under the Act, also known as Obamacare, the federal government would pay 100 percent of the cost of expansion for three years — about $250 million per year — before winnowing down to 90 percent after that. The move would expand coverage to 25,000 low-income Mainers who are scheduled to lose coverage in January and 55,000 others not currently eligible.
Medicaid expansion was defeated last session when proponents couldn’t assemble the votes to override a governor’s veto that killed the effort. While Democrats cheered the second bid to expand coverage, Republicans on the Council — with the exception of Katz — were angry to see the Medicaid expansion come up again so soon.
“It was clear that the Democrat majority has more of the same in mind for the second session: more government spending that Mainers cannot afford,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport.
Meanwhile, two welfare reform bills by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, were killed. The first would have required able-bodied applicants for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to demonstrate that they had applied for three jobs before receiving benefits. The second would have tightened restrictions on which recipients of TANF benefits would be exempt from an education, training and work program.
Those reform measures were defeated in a split vote in which Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, voted with the four Republicans in favor of the bills.
Debate was not held during the Legislative Council meeting, but Fredette said he would appeal the Council’s decision in November, when bill sponsors will have a chance to argue their case before the Council. If that doesn’t work, Fredette said he would ask Gov. Paul LePage to introduce the bills.
“Republicans are not going to give up on their battle to rein in the cost of welfare spending in Maine,” Fredette said after the meeting.
Democrats were defiant in the face of accusations from Republicans that they were breaking the joint rules of the Legislature by reintroducing the Medicaid expansion effort. Joint Rule 217 prevents the same bill from being introduced twice during the same two-year legislative term. Fredette said Republicans would use the rule to protest Medicaid expansion when it hits the House floor. Democrats are the majority party in both the House and Senate.
“This clearly shows that they’re willing to abuse their political power, to abuse the process and create more of a battle on this issue,” Fredette said.
When a question about JR 217 is made, it is up to the presiding officer of the chamber to make a ruling. Eves and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, preside over their respective chambers and are unlikely to rule against the bill, which they both support.
“We are going to rule, in our chambers, with the presiding officers, to make a final determination,” Eves said. “But it is clearly an emergency when we have an opportunity to provide health care for 70,000 Mainers and bring $700,000 a day into Maine. … We need to get this done.”
Other bills accepted to the session include bond bills to fund investments in biotechnology and lobster processing plants, allocate $2 million to Head Start, and appropriate money for homeless shelters.
A slate of bills were also approved to tackle student debt and financial aid, including a bill to require lenders to provide information about projected lifetime earnings and debt repayment schedules; a bill to allow the state to waive tuition for a student in the University of Maine System in exchange for that student paying a percentage of their income over a 20-year period; and a bill to study alternatives to traditional higher education lending.
A bill by Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, which would require that records of domestic violence risk assessments conducted by police be released to high-risk response teams, advanced. A bill to develop a new system for the nonemergency transportation of MaineCare patients was also accepted. A bill to replace the problematic nonemergency transportation program for MaineCare patients with a more reliable program was also approved.
A bill to expand the embattled Riverview Psychiatric Center was defeated, while a bill to create a mental health unit at Kennebec County Jail was approved.
Rejected bills included one by Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, to expunge prostitution convictions from the record of victims of human trafficking; a bill to legalize the recreational use of marijuana; a bill to create a review process for tax breaks; and a bill to reverse the expansion of the mental health unit at the Maine State Prison and direct funding instead to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Another bill, which would have established an “Inspector General” to investigate fraud in DHHS, was defeated, as were a bill to make the lobster roll the official “state sandwich,” and a bill to change the name of “Patriot’s Day” to “Patriots’ Day.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.