AUGUSTA — A plan to pay off Maine’s debt to its hospitals, an issue that has been a political football throughout this legislative session, was finally passed Thursday by the Maine Legislature.
L.D. 1555 calls for borrowing to pay the state’s $183.5 million share of debt to 39 hospitals and repaying it with revenue from a soon-to-be negotiated wholesale liquor contract.
Payment of the debt has been a key goal for Gov. Paul LePage, who has frequently berated Democratic leaders for not acting sooner.
“What would you rather collateralize your debt with?” asked Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, on the House floor. “U.S. treasuries … or Allen’s Coffee Brandy?” referring to the drink perennially named Maine’s most popular spirit.
The bill passed 149-0 in the House and 35-0 in the Senate just before 10:30 p.m. It now goes to LePage’s desk for approval.
Paying off Maine’s share of the hospital debt would unlock about $300 million in federal funds, making the package worth nearly a half-billion dollars for the hospitals.
“Our hospitals are critical to the well-being of our communities and state,” said Rep, Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston. “We are all eager to help these important institutions stay strong and healthy.”
LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said she expects LePage will take “prompt action” to sign the bill, but she didn’t elaborate.
“Democrats have delayed … the hospital debt for as long as they could,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that you have to wait.”
Democrats have countered those arguments by saying the governor has been stalling.
In May, he vetoed a Democratic plan that would have paid the hospitals while expanding Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor. LePage vetoed the plan because he opposes expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.
“We cannot use political reasons to dodge paying our hospitals,” said Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, in a statement Thursday. “We are all in agreement that we will make our final payment to the hospitals, which is exactly what today’s vote will do.”
He said, “we hope, this time, the governor will join us getting this done.”
LePage has made the payment his overriding goal for this legislative session, and his actions toward that end have made headlines all their own.
The governor had refused to release $105 million in voter-approved bonds dating back to 2009 until the debt payment passed.
The bonds would fund improvements to transportation infrastructure, energy-efficiency and construction programs at higher education institutions and conservation and water upgrades. Maine law gives the governor five years to issue bonds.
Although he didn’t carry it out, LePage also threatened to veto all bills until the plan got to his desk. He put up a television screen outside his office urging the plan’s passage.
Lately, his press office has released statements on the 139th and 150th days since he proposed his plan to pay hospitals.
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at: