AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage told a Bangor radio station Friday that he will veto every bill that comes to his desk unless the Democratic-controlled Legislature passes his plan to pay off the state’s debt to Maine hospitals.
Democrats quickly denounced his remarks, saying the governor is promoting “do-nothing politics” by threatening to go on a “veto spree.”
Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, likened the governor’s actions to those of a schoolyard bully.
The governor’s veto threat – followed by his hint of a shutdown of state government – touched off a full day of blame-heavy rhetoric as legislative leaders from both parties held dueling news conferences, negotiating through the media.
By the end of Friday, the two sides were no closer to a resolution over competing bills to negotiate a new long-term liquor contract.
Speaking on the George Hale and Ric Tyler Show on WVOM, LePage told Tyler that he planned to inform Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, of the veto ultimatum during a meeting scheduled for Friday evening.
“I’m going to lay out a little plan that I have,” LePage said. “Every single bill – until the hospital payment is passed – is going to be vetoed.”
The governor said it a second time on the radio show and again during a brief television interview.
He told WCSH-TV in Portland that “the next bill I sign as governor is going to be the hospital bill.” He said that if lawmakers don’t deliver the bill quickly, they should “close the session and go home, spend time with the kids, and we’ll see you next January.”
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, later confirmed that LePage’s comments had been planned and discussed with his staff.
Democratic leaders denounced LePage’s threat to shut down state government if lawmakers don’t give him his way.
“This is not governing,” Goodall said. “This is not leadership. It is the type of political gamesmanship that doesn’t belong here in Maine. I suspect the people of Maine want leaders, not schoolyard bullies.”
The conflict centers on LePage’s plan to use borrowing and revenue from the state’s wholesale liquor operation to pay more than $484 million in unpaid Medicaid reimbursements to Maine’s 39 hospitals.
About $184 million of that total is owed by the state, which must pay the debt to release federal matching funds.
LePage’s liquor bill calls for a contractor to monitor inventory, manage accounts and advertising, and coordinate with suppliers.
After its current 10-year contract expires in 2014, the state would control the proceeds from liquor sales, with “a private sector person to provide administration” and marketing, distribution and warehousing.
The state would pay the hospitals by issuing bonds for as much as $187 million, to be repaid from liquor sales.
LePage, and later Republican lawmakers, said Friday that the Democratic majority has been slow to schedule the bill for a public hearing. The bill is scheduled for a hearing March 11, along with the competing bill sponsored by Goodall.
Goodall has said his bill would not earmark liquor contract revenue for a particular use because that discussion should be separate from getting the best terms possible.
Republicans said the governor’s bill should have had a hearing by now because it was introduced Feb. 5, while Goodall’s was introduced Feb. 21 and immediately referred to committee.
They also indicated that Democrats had “fast-tracked” a bill that would allow earlier liquor sales on St. Patrick’s Day.
The wholesale-liquor proposals are far more complex than the St. Patrick’s Day bill, which would lift the state’s ban on liquor sales between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Sundays when the holiday falls on a Sunday.
The competing bills from LePage and Goodall will determine the long-term future of a revenue stream that state officials say is worth $46 million a year.
Republicans said Friday that Democrats want to use the liquor revenue to pay for welfare programs rather than repay the hospitals.
Goodall, in an afternoon news conference, said the state has numerous funding priorities, including paying the hospitals, funding education and investing in its infrastructure. He said funding for social programs is also a need.
Republican leaders tried to play down the governor’s veto threat. Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau of Winterport was asked whether his party agrees that vetoing bills is the right course of action. He said he hadn’t heard the veto remarks or discussed them with LePage.
Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said the Legislature will continue to do its work.
Thibodeau and Fredette met with LePage on Friday afternoon. Afterward, the two issued a joint statement that further soft-pedaled the veto threat, saying the governor told them “that he would not consider signing legislation that does not have broad, bipartisan support or promote job creation until the hospital debt is paid.”
The governor’s comments appeared designed to pressure Democratic leaders, who are taking heat from Republicans for not fast-tracking the hospital proposal.
On the radio show, LePage promised twice to veto legislation, the second time after Tyler, the host, asked him to repeat the ultimatum.
“Until they move forward I’m not going to move forward on any legislation,” he said, adding that the veto threat applied even to his own bills.
Democrats were quick to tie the governor’s remarks to a statement by Fredette last week that a government shutdown is “a possibility.”
“In one week, we’ve heard ongoing threats to shut down state government if Republicans don’t get what they want,” Goodall said.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:
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