AUGUSTA, Maine — What a difference a year makes. Or not.
The legislative session that began Wednesday will pick up where the previous session left off in June, with much of the attention on Medicaid expansion and the state budget. The question is whether there is any chance that lawmakers, whose disagreement last year nearly shut down state government and who upheld Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of Medicaid expansion by only a few votes, will reverse their previous stances.
With the November elections looming, the political pressure on lawmakers and LePage is unquestionably higher than it was last year, though there is disagreement in the State House about whether that will make a difference.
House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, suggested during a news conference Wednesday that the election looms large and might prevent progress in the Legislature between now and the planned adjournment date of April 16.
“Quite frankly, the reality is that we probably have fairly low expectations this legislative session,” said Fredette after being asked how the upcoming election will affect the legislative process. “We have some difficult budget issues that we’re going to have to deal with. We have welfare bills and Medicaid expansion. Those are all going to be very difficult issues to find compromise on.”
Every seat in the Legislature is up for election this year. With new Maine Republican Party leadership, the GOP is hoping to retake the House and Senate majorities they won in 2010, but lost back to Democrats in 2012. However, unless either party manages a landslide that results in a two-thirds majority — which is enough to override a gubernatorial veto — the most influential factor in Maine politics is the governor’s race.
Following three years of incendiary rhetoric from LePage — which he has directed at lawmakers of both parties and independents — more than 80 vetoes and a reluctance to talk with lawmakers or the press, there are signs that LePage is changing his tactics. In addition to keeping a roll of duct tape on his desk in the State House to remind him to soften his rhetoric, LePage has been meeting with legislators in recent weeks and granting interviews with some reporters.
During a speech LePage delivered to a group of farmers at an agricultural trade show in Augusta on Tuesday, the governor directed soft words at the legislative branch. It was a departure from some of his previous comments, including during budget negotiations last year when he said the State House is “like a day care.” He also targeted legislative Republican lawmakers who disagreed with him on the biennial budget that he “felt like a general leading a foot battle and saying ‘fix bayonets,’ and I hear one click.”
LePage said Tuesday that he understands that there are differences of opinion in the State House.
“We all go to Augusta with an intent to do the right thing, we really do,” said LePage. “Everybody is down there for the most part to do the best things for the Maine people. The problem is they don’t understand what it takes to make that happen. Then we get into ideology.”
There are some who aren’t convinced that the looming election will soften LePage’s manner with legislators. One of them is Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who has clashed with LePage frequently.
“If I had to guess, I think we’re going to get more bombastic and outrageous,” said Jackson on Wednesday. “I think he’s going to hear the footsteps in the election and feel it’s slipping away. Then we’ll have more of the same.”
For Jackson and his Democratic Senate colleague Emily Cain, D-Orono, the stakes this legislative session are also heightened, or at least will lead to a higher level of scrutiny, because they oppose each other in the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who is running for governor.
Jackson steps up from the assistant majority leader’s post to succeed former Majority Leader Seth Goodall, who resigned from the Senate at the end of the 2013 session to accept an appointment to the federal Small Business Administration. Cain serves on the influential Appropriations Committee. Both said Wednesday that their candidacies won’t change how they operate in the Senate.
“To me, the election has very, very little impact on my work in the Senate,” said Cain. “The State House is not the place for campaigning.”
Despite that, the campaign to expand eligibility for Medicaid under the provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act hasn’t stopped since last June when the House of Representatives came within a few votes of overriding LePage’s veto of the expansion. The measure never made it to the Senate, which had earlier voted 23-12 in favor of the original bill.
Democrats, who voted as a caucus in favor of the measure last year, argue that a majority of Mainers favor expansion and could put enough election-year pressure on Republicans to create a two-thirds majority. Republicans said problems with the ACA roll-out in recent months, including massive federal website problems that stalled health insurance sign-ups for weeks last year, solidified GOP lawmakers’ opinions against Medicaid expansion.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said the government’s promise to fund 100 percent of Medicaid expansion costs for the states for three years before decreasing incrementally to 90 percent can’t be trusted, given the financial pressure on Congress.
“Our caucus is probably stronger against it than they were last year,” said Thibodeau.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said he is hopeful that Democrats and Republicans can find compromise and that negotiations will center around concepts floated last year by Republican Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. Among Katz’ proposals was to accept the federal expansion money for three years only, which will force the state to revisit the issue when it can better determine the financial impact.
“We are going to start where we left off last year,” said Eves. “We’re willing to discuss compromise.”
Katz said Wednesday that he is still working on a compromise plan but wasn’t ready to discuss the details.
“I understand the reluctance of my Republican colleagues to support expansion efforts, particularly in light of what’s happened nationally with the Affordable Care Act,” said Katz. “But I continue to think that there ought to be some middle ground that will allow us to get this done in a way that will benefit the state of Maine.”
House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said he has hope for the session, though he knows it’s probable that election-year politics will be a factor.
“I just hope we can work together to do the work of the Maine people,” he said.