Back on April 6, 2011, I predicted that Republican moderates in the Legislature were going to abandon the governor, and run the state with the Democrats as pragmatic bipartisan deal-makers. It may have been the dumbest thing I’ve ever written.

“It was fun while it lasted, but the LePage era is over,” I said back then, just three months into the new administration. “Sure, the governor will … continue to live in the Blaine House. He’ll get to travel around the state, feed lines to the late-night comedians and represent us at National Governors Association events, but his days as the agenda-setter-in-chief are over, and cooler heads in the Legislature will be running the show from now on.”

My exuberance was inspired by a column signed by eight Republican state senators that called on the governor to stop “government by disrespect” and “picking … personal fight(s) not worth having,” an unprecedented public rebuke of a chief executive by members of his own party.

But, boy, was I ever wrong. The Republican caucus stuck with the governor and followed LePage off a cliff in the 2012 election, losing control of both the House and Senate, which they’d held only for two years after four decades in the minority.

Now two of the senators who signed that column, Roger Katz of Augusta and Tom Saviello of Wilton, have put together a compromise plan designed to attract enough Republican votes to pass MaineCare expansion this year over the objection of their party’s leadership and an almost certain veto.

I won’t make a prediction – I’ve been burned before – but this is a deal they ought to take.

It looks like this: For the next three years, Maine would accept federal funds to expand MaineCare to adults who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line (about $15,000 a year for an individual).

In exchange, the Republicans would get a commitment to outsource the $2.4 billion Maine-Care program to managed-care providers, with the goal of controlling costs.

Managed care is something Democrats might ordinarily reject out of hand, but when it’s tied to expanding health coverage to 70,000 people who don’t now have it, they are much more likely to listen.

What Republican lawmakers decide to do may have a lot to do with what they expect to happen in November.

If LePage is re-elected and their party retakes majorities in the House and Senate, they would be able to cut MaineCare costs any way they want.

If they lose the Blaine House, however, and fail to reclaim control of the Legislature, they won’t have much to say about what happens. Both Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler have said they would sign a MaineCare expansion bill if elected governor.

Republicans could enter a conversation with those governors with a lot less bargaining power than they have right now.

This could be the best chance that they’ll get to influence the structure of the program.

The forces against this compromise are formidable. Opposition to MaineCare expansion is a centerpiece of the LePage re-election campaign. He calls it out-of-control welfare spending and will almost certainly veto any bill that comes to his desk. He has shown that he is not afraid of using every lever of state government to punish lawmakers who don’t see things his way.

For instance, last week he announced that he was not going to issue voter-approved bonds that were the heart of his own jobs program because he was angry that the Legislature voted to use state cash reserves to restore some of his cuts to municipal revenue sharing. Imagine how vindictive he could get if he is defied on something closer to his heart.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette has come out unequivocally against the proposal crafted by Katz and Saviello, leaving wavering members of his caucus no wiggle room for compromise.

Even though expansion would bring in $1 million a day in federal funds that would be used to pay doctors, hospitals and other health care providers, Fredette said it would be “devastating to Maine’s economic future.”

This won’t be one of those issues where members of the caucus are released to vote their conscience.

But Katz and Saviello don’t need many votes. Last year, a MaineCare expansion bill came within three votes in the House of overriding the governor’s veto. That was before the managed-care provision was attached.

People have been predicting the defection of traditional Maine Republicans from the LePage camp since the day he was nominated in June 2010, but so far it hasn’t happened. This might be the time when that changes.

I’d say it was, but as we all know, I’ve been wrong before.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at [email protected]