AUGUSTA —— Democratic lawmakers in the House gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill that would nullify the LePage administration’s controversial $925,000 contract with a consultant to study Maine’s welfare system.

The House voted 80-60 to approve the bill, on a mostly party-line vote that likely foreshadows a veto by Gov. Paul LePage.

The administration awarded the no-bid contract to the Alexander Group in September.

The study has since been besieged by Democrats as a political document used to justify the governor’s welfare reform policies.

Gary Alexander, a former health and human services chief for Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, is now head of the Alexander Group. Democrats have labeled him a “crony” of the governor.

The criticism increased in January, when Alexander delivered an analysis of the feasibility of expanding Maine’s Medicaid program. One national analyst said the report contained a $575 million calculation error. Others noted that it didn’t show any cost savings from expanding Medicaid.

“The taxpayers of Maine should not have to pay for a flashy campaign report for the (governor),” said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the assistant majority leader.

Republicans defended the report during Tuesday’s floor debate.

Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, said the no-bid contract was justified because Alexander had helped obtain a “global waiver” from the federal government, which gave Rhode Island flexibility to make reforms in its Medicaid program. Such reform is needed in Maine, he said.

Some Democrats did not endorse the bill. Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, said she does not support the Alexander Group’s work but worries about the precedent of voiding an agreement made by the executive branch.

The bill, L.D. 1794, needs additional votes in the House and the Senate.

The study is funded with a mix of state general fu

nd dollars and federal money. Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew has defended the study and said the bill is “a blatant attempt by partisan lawmakers to discredit a thorough and accurate report from a national Medicaid expert that does not support their political position on Medicaid expansion.”

The report was touted initially by Republican lawmakers as a reason to oppose Medicaid expansion, a key policy battle in this session.

Republican support for the report has been muted since its findings were questioned by outside analysts.

Under the contract, the Alexander Group was given several target dates to deliver specific elements of its analysis. The group missed its Dec. 1 target date for the Medicaid expansion study.

The report was delivered Dec. 16, and the LePage administration didn’t release it until Jan. 10, even though the contract notes that all documents in the state’s possession are subject to the state’s Freedom of Access Act.

The Alexander Group was scheduled to deliver a “data-driven analysis” of the state’s welfare system, and a plan to redesign the Medicaid system, on Dec. 20.

A spokesman for the DHHS said Jan. 14 that the department was giving Alexander more time to complete the reports and had not set a deadline.

The spokesman, John Martins, said 40 percent of the payment to the Alexander Group would be withheld until the required work was completed.

Martins said Monday that the state has not paid the Alexander Group for the outstanding portions of the report, but the monthly payments continue to be made.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:smistler@pressherald.comTwitter: @stevemistler