AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans in the Maine House of Representatives on Monday upheld Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill that would have provided startup funding for Medicaid expansion, guaranteeing for now that the issue will be solved in court.
It was one of the 23 of 43 LePage vetoes sustained by lawmakers Monday and the Republican’s latest successful veto on the issue of expanding Medicaid to 70,000 Mainers under the federal government. LePage vetoed expansion five times before 59 percent of voters made Maine the first state to pass it by referendum in 2017.
However, expansion hasn’t moved forward. The day after that election, LePage laid out a list of conditions that he said the Legislature had to meet before he’d allow expansion to happen, including funding it at a disputed cost estimate and not raising taxes or raiding reserves.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services missed an April 3 deadline under the law to submit a plan for expanding Medicaid to people with incomes between 101 percent and 138 percent of the federal poverty level, leading to a lawsuit that month from advocates.
The bill vetoed this year by LePage would have put up to $54.7 million toward funding startup costs for expansion, with $31.2 million coming from the state budget and a possible $23.5 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which is largely funded by tobacco settlement money.
But LePage assailed it in his veto letter, saying the state “needs a sustainable method of funding” to cover associated costs. All Democrats and seven Republicans voted to override the veto, but the 85-58 margin fell short of the two-thirds necessary in both chambers to buck the governor.
The Republicans who broke with LePage on the veto were Reps. Matt Pouliot of Augusta, Robert Foley of Wells, Russell Black of Wilton, William Tuell of East Machias, Paul Stearns of Guilford, Patrick Corey of Windham and Bruce Bickford of Auburn.
Now the lawsuit will wind through Maine’s court system. In June, a Superior Court justice ruled that the LePage administration must submit the plan even though the Legislature hadn’t appropriated startup funding, but that ruling is now on hold until July 18 arguments before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
The law also said Mainers would be eligible for expanded coverage July 2, and advocates are urging people to sign up, though it’s not yet clear how the state will handle applications in the absence of dedicated funding.
In a statement after the veto was sustained, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, called Medicaid expansion “the law of the land” regardless of Monday’s result and that the only item for discussion is whether lawmakers will “fund it now or fund it later.”
Among the other bills that were killed Monday were proposals to ban so-called “conversion therapy;” effectively reopen the shuttered Downeast Correctional Facility, a state prison in Machiasport; and establish a pilot opioid addiction treatment program in Washington County.
EqualityMaine, a pro-LGBT rights group, has said it would consider a referendum push if the Legislature couldn’t ban conversion therapy, a widely denounced treatment in which attempts are made to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. But most Republicans, including LePage, found the bill overbroad.
Only four Republicans — Pouliot and and Reps. Scott Strom of Pittsfield, Don Marean of Hollis and John Picchiotti of Fairfield —- voted to override that veto. Three rural Democrats — Reps. Danny Martin of Sinclair, Stephen Stanley of Medway and John Madigan of Rumford — voted with LePage on the veto.
The Legislature overturned 20 LePage vetoes Monday, including his objections to bills equaling a $68 million spending package that increases funding rates for services to disabled or elderly Mainers, increases funding to county jails, overhauls medical marijuana regulations, and requires energy regulators to split audit costs for public utilities between their ratepayers and shareholders if it results in disallowed costs.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated the number of Republicans who voted to override the veto. All but seven Republicans voted to sustain the veto.