Quick and dirty.
That’s typically how second sessions of the Legislature go, and the one that begins Wednesday should be no different. Lawmakers will tackle a number of issues that could have far-reaching impacts on Maine residents, including the expansion of Medicaid for about 60,000 low-income people, welfare reform and a supplemental state budget that could increase the burden on property taxpayers.
But election-year politics and rhetoric will accompany and shape many, if not all, of the issues.
“The bad news is that the session takes place during an election year, which means things tend to get very partisan,” said Sen. Roger Katz, the assistant Republican leader from Augusta. “The good news is that it takes place during an election year, which means lawmakers tend to want to get things done quickly so they can go home and concentrate on campaigning.”
At least two of the hottest topics – Medicaid expansion and welfare – may well become part of those campaigns.
Democrats, who won the majority of the Legislature in hotly contested races in 2012, are expected to try to retain that advantage this fall championing the expansion of Medicaid, the publicly funded health insurance program for the poor, elderly and disabled that the state calls MaineCare. Two efforts to pass Medicaid expansion for Mainers who make less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level last year failed, and the push in 2014 will be just as difficult.
“We have to find a way to pass Medicaid expansion,” said Sen. Anne Haskell, the assistant Democratic leader from Portland. “That is the priority this session.”
Gov. Paul LePage and most Republican lawmakers have opposed expansion, arguing that Maine’s previous experience with expanding the program has hamstrung state budgets. They contend that the latest federal proposal is accompanied by hidden costs, and they question promises that the federal government will fully fund expansion for three years, before gradually drawing down to a 90 percent reimbursement rate.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew has said the state’s $2.4 billion Medicaid program, which takes up most of the agency’s $3.4 billion budget, is unsustainable. She has repeatedly said that even if the federal dollars arrived as promised, the state would still pay $150 million a year to manage the expansion population.
Polarization over Medicaid expansion can be attributed to its connection to the Affordable Care Act, the federal health care law that encountered a near disastrous rollout in 2013. Republicans locally and nationally have feverishly opposed the law, also known as Obamacare, and already congressional candidates are positioning their campaigns by talking up its bumpy launch. In Maine, State House Republicans have linked President Obama’s now-infamous promise, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” with Medicaid expansion’s promise of federal funding.
More recently, Republicans used findings from a Harvard study evaluating impacts of Medicaid during a long-term experiment in Oregon. The study rebutted a key argument by expansion proponents that access to health care reduces emergency room visits. The Oregon study showed a net increase.
Katz, the Augusta Republican leader, last year authored a Medicaid expansion amendment that fell a few votes short of overriding the governor’s veto. He said there were compelling arguments to proceed with expansion, but Republicans open to the idea want it to include an evaluation of the program, its health benefits and some “skin in the game” for recipients. He noted that other Republican governors have been able to craft expansion proposals to meet those goals, but he was unsure if it could happen in Maine.
Instead, the fate of Medicaid expansion in Maine may well be determined by how it helps or hurts a lawmaker’s chance for re-election. Recently the Maine People’s Resource Center, a polling organization affiliated with the Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal activist group supporting the health care law, released a poll showing broad support for Medicaid expansion in legislative swing districts.
Republican lawmakers in those districts may well be the focus of lobbying efforts to support expansion this year. Haskell said she wasn’t aware of a compromise plan.
“At this point I think it’s come down to convincing individual legislators that this is right for Maine,” she said.
Lawmakers last year were able to reach a bipartisan compromise over the state’s two-year budget and avoid a government shutdown. A similar task awaits legislative leaders in 2014, as lawmakers bridge what’s expected to be a budget gap that some estimate will approach $120 million.
Some of the funding shortfall is unexpected, including the loss of $20 million in federal funds for the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services have contested claims by the federal government that the facility is out of compliance, but state lawmakers are bracing for a protracted battle that will likely create a sizable shortfall beginning in fiscal year 2014 and through 2015.
“I don’t think we’ve really gotten to the bottom of all the issues at Riverview,” said Haskell, referring to several federal audits that questioned staff levels, management practices and patient safety. Those issues prevent the facility from receiving federal reimbursement dollars that represent more than half of Riverview’s operating budget.
Another $40 million gap in the budget was self-inflicted.
The budget passed last year created a tax expenditure review committee to review $1 billion in state tax exemptions and economic development incentives and recommend changes that would create $40 million in revenue. If lawmakers don’t agree to the tax break changes, then the $40 million will automatically be cut from state aid to municipalities.
Katz, who served on the panel, and Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, said they were hopeful that the tax expenditure committee would reach a bipartisan consensus on recommendations to save money, but that didn’t happen.
Geoff Herman, the legislative liaison for the Maine Municipal Association, the group representing the state’s town governments, said he’s worried now that lawmakers will take the easy way out and allow the municipal revenue sharing cut.
“It seems like there’s an increasing willingness for the state to solve its fiscal problems on the backs of property taxpayers,” he said. “They all point fingers and blame the other (party), but that’s what it’s come down to.”
He said it was easier for property taxpayers to blame town government for higher taxes.
“The easiest way out for legislators is to take actions that are not directly attributable to them,” Herman said.
Reaching a supplemental budget deal is difficult under normal circumstances. But lawmakers in both parties say LePage has made it more challenging by refusing to propose a spending plan, a move that some State House observers say is unprecedented.
“We’re hopeful the governor will participate in the process,” Rotundo said. “But if he doesn’t, then we’ll do the job we were sent here to do.”
LePage has beaten the welfare reform drum often since taking office in 2011. He and Republicans will bang it harder as both lawmakers and the governor head into the 2014 election.
LePage has already made deep financial and political investments in preventing welfare fraud, beefing up the DHHS investigative unit and referring more prosecution cases to the Office of Attorney General. This year the governor will unveil a range of proposals that he and Republicans say are designed to make sure those who are qualified for benefits receive them, while those who don’t are turned away.
Many of the proposals face long odds in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Democratic lawmakers have labeled the bills as politically motivated proposals that victimize the poor.
But Republicans and LePage believe they have the support of Maine people. That’s why the upcoming session will feature high-profile debates over a bill that would require people seeking welfare cash benefits to show that they’ve applied for three jobs and another that would limit items that can be purchased with electronic benefit transfer cards.
Democrats have expressed some willingness to support the latter proposal. However, the work search bill has encountered stiff opposition from House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and lawmakers rejected the measure when it was originally proposed by House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport.
LePage resurrected the proposal with his authority to introduce legislation without the support of legislative leaders. The bill has counterparts in 19 states where lawmakers and budget hawks have adopted new – and politically popular – ways to crack down on welfare spending.
In many states, the job search requirement has dramatically reduced caseloads for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. However, critics of the initiative believe the measures are designed to block welfare applicants from receiving needed benefits by making the process more difficult.
Currently, welfare recipients must show that they’re looking for a job to continue receiving benefits. Fredette’s bill would require applicants to show that they had applied for at least three jobs before even qualifying for cash assistance.
Fredette and LePage have said the upfront work search requirement is common sense and would prevent the issuance of benefits to able-bodied people who haven’t yet looked for a job.
Democrats like Haskell resist the narrative, saying it’s an “attack on the poor.” However, Republicans have tried to turn the tables, saying Democrats will resist any efforts to improve a costly system that often creates generational dependence on public assistance.
It’s a debate that, like Medicaid expansion and the budget, will dominate the legislative session, not to mention the 2014 election.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: