AUGUSTA — The Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee blocked Gov. Paul LePage’s surprise attempt to speak Sunday during an emergency meeting called to address the governor’s recent claim that the Department of Health and Human Services won’t be able to pay MaineCare providers come May 28.
Democratic leaders, skeptical of the timing and motive behind the claim, made a letter that LePage sent to them late Friday the subject of Sunday’s emergency meeting to question DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew about the finances of her department.
LePage asked to address the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee as it was preparing to recess. Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, told the governor that she didn’t want to inject politics into a meeting during which lawmakers had agreed that the shortfall could be fixed by the end of the week.
“I mean no disrespect to you, but … I know there’s a lot of politics at play here,” Hill said.
“No,” LePage interrupted. “There’s no politics. I’m a pragmatic person. I do not play politics.”
The exchange went on for about two minutes. At one point, LePage rose to leave the room. He then stopped and returned to the dais, saying the committee was denying him the chance to speak.
“It’s unfortunate that the people of the state of Maine are being played for patsies,” he said.
The exchange followed an emergency session during which Democrats grilled LePage administration officials over the letter the governor sent to legislative leaders Friday evening. LePage claimed that the Legislature needed to approve the state’s next two-year budget by the end of this week or risk delaying MaineCare reimbursement payments.
The governor said Democratic leaders were “engaging in Washington-style politics” because the Legislature had not yet approved the state’s next two-year budget. Meanwhile, LePage said, “a crisis is looming that will affect our most needy citizens.”
Democratic leaders immediately questioned the timing and the motive of the letter. Their sentiment did not change after Sunday’s emergency meeting when they learned that the shortfall amount was identical to that contained in a budget change package submitted by the administration in early May. The committee held a public hearing on the change package Friday.
“It’s standard procedure for the governor, trying to manufacture a crisis,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. “That’s what he does. The funny thing about it was his own people, his own commissioner came in and put that to bed.”
Jackson was referring to LePage’s finance commissioner, Sawin Millett. Millett told lawmakers that they could resolve the funding gap either by adopting the change package quickly or through a supplemental budget request.
“It’s not rocket science, nor is it impossible,” Millett told the committee.
Jackson said, “Unlike the governor, who was trying to throw gas on everything, (Millett) was quite calm and understands the process.”
Lawmakers on the committee eventually agreed that they could patch the funding gap in time to make the payments to providers of MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, the public insurance program for low-income residents.
However, Democratic members also questioned why the administration hadn’t made them aware of the looming shortfall deadline until 5 p.m. Friday.
Democrats later accused the administration of inventing the crisis for political gain amid high-profile debates over the state’s two-year budget and Democratic leaders’ plan to expand MaineCare.
Mayhew told the committee that the shortfall was identified in a recent change package to the governor’s proposed two-year budget. The package, worth $35 million, would keep the department whole until the next budget is adopted.
Democrats on the committee questioned why the May 28 deadline wasn’t mentioned until the administration publicized a pair of letters Friday evening. Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, told Mayhew that the communication style was “disturbing.”
“It’s not acceptable to find out about this on a Friday at 5 p.m. in a letter that didn’t even come to us (the committee),” Rotundo said.
Mayhew said she was perplexed at the lawmakers’ surprise, given that funding shortfalls were commonplace within the MaineCare program. Democratic lawmakers weren’t satisfied with that explanation.
Rotundo, an 11-year veteran of the budget committee and House chairwoman of the panel, said the letter sent Friday was “highly irregular” given that the department had repeatedly briefed the committee on financial matters during the budget process.
Mayhew also expressed frustration that Rotundo believed the funding shortfall was a surprise, adding that the department had provided the panel with “reams” of data and analysis.
Republican lawmakers on the panel tried to defuse tension, which some worried would disrupt already delicate negotiations over the state’s two-year budget. The panel has voted out more than half of the spending lines in the budget, but has yet to agree on more contentious items.
“Our job is to stay focused, collaborative, calm and work something out because other people and other factors that surround us will be trying to divide us, to torment us and make us get political and crazy,” Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, told the committee. “I don’t think we lend ourselves to doing that here.”
The budget-writing committee is known for working in a bipartisan fashion to solve budgets and other funding crises. Hill said after the meeting that she was trying to preserve that work atmosphere when she didn’t allow LePage to address the committee.
“Given the tenor of the meeting this afternoon, I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for him to be here and speak to us,” Hill said. “Secondly, he was more than adequately represented by Commissioner Mayhew … and also Commissioner Millett. We wanted to get back to work. It was time to move on.”
LePage didn’t agree. When Hill told him that she didn’t want to inject politics into the meeting, he said, “Are you saying that the governor of the state of Maine is not welcome to address the Appropriations Committee?”
“Governor, quite frankly I’m not saying that, but we hadn’t expected you, and what we had to accomplish today was accomplished,” said Hill, adding that LePage was welcome to speak with anyone on the committee at another time. “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.”
It’s unusual for a sitting governor to address a legislative committee, but not unprecedented. LePage has tried it previously. Last year, when Republicans controlled the Legislature, he unexpectedly addressed the budget-writing committee and demanded that it pass a supplemental budget.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, declined to discuss LePage’s appearance Sunday. However, he said it was clear that lawmakers had a solution to the shortfall.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at email@example.com