AUGUSTA –– Gov. Paul LePage asked top Democratic lawmakers again Wednesday to call a special legislative session to address what he says is a crisis threatening to force the closure of rural nursing homes, an issue that is likely to resonate with older voters, who are key to LePage’s re-election bid.
LePage used his weekly radio address to urge Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, to summon legislators to the State House – even though the governor himself can call lawmakers back.
“The Legislature can take action on my proposal to fund nursing homes before another facility is forced to close,” Le-Page said. “Our elderly should not have to live in fear. They should not have to worry if they will have a place to call home tomorrow.”
But Democrats worry that the governor’s proposal to add $5 million in funding to nursing homes is identical to one he introduced one day before the Legislature adjourned May 1. LePage’s bill would have taken the $5 million out of the Fund for a Healthy Maine, a program funded by the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement that supports smoking cessation and education programs.
Democrats rejected that funding mechanism and worked on a compromise proposal with Republicans on the budget-writing committee to find other sources of revenue for nursing homes. The deal was scuttled late on the final day of the session, after the LePage administration indicated that the governor would veto a compromise.
Alfond, in a prepared statement, noted Wednesday that the Legislature has already funded nursing homes to their highest level in five years, and that LePage has a long track record of not working with lawmakers.
“We are not going to call ourselves back in so that Gov. LePage can veto another bill,” he said.
The Legislature pumped more money into nursing home funding as part of a bipartisan budget enacted in 2013. That budget – approved over Le-Page’s veto – increased nursing home funding by $26 million in state and federal funds beginning July 1, 2015. A separate bill – which became law without LePage’s signature – added another $12 million in state and federal funds and increased the reimbursement rate to nursing homes under MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid and the primary funding source for most nursing homes.
Despite those steps, nursing homes in Lubec and Pittsfield recently announced that they will close, adding fuel to an issue that LePage keeps returning to as he campaigns for re-election. While LePage has pushed the nursing home issue for several weeks, he’s increased the intensity, visiting nursing homes last week and releasing numerous press statements criticizing Democrats.
The offensive follows a politically damaging press release last month from LePage’s office that effectively lumped Social Security and Medicare into a category of public benefits that the governor referred to as “welfare, plain and simple.”
LePage later sought to clarify the statement, saying he doesn’t consider Social Security a form of welfare and accusing the media and his Democratic challenger for the Blaine House, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, of twisting his words. Michaud and the independent in the governor’s race, Eliot Cutler, both criticized LePage for the Social Security statement.
LePage also criticized Michaud, a former state lawmaker, for voting for a bill in the Legislature 12 years ago that would have taxed some Social Security recipients. The bill did not pass.
Nursing home costs and Social Security are core issues for older voters, but James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said the impact of the debate on the November election is hard to predict. “I don’t tend to think there is a monolithic senior vote,” he said, “although certainly they will be paying particular attention.”
He added, “Seniors do tend to vote at a high rate, and since most elections see a drop-off, that matters. But the people paying the closest attention may be the kids of seniors. They may wonder if this sort of instability poses issues for them.”
Melcher said the rhetoric from both sides reinforces the political parties’ messages on health care while stoking long-present “rural economic anxiety.” Still, he said, “I think the average voter who doesn’t have a commitment to either side … will find it all too confusing to move their vote one way or another.”
Neither side is likely to do much to clarify voter confusion, at least based on current postures on the nursing home question.
On Monday, LePage told WABI-TV in Bangor that in the Legislature, “Nobody’s ever come to me on a compromise on nursing homes. As a matter of fact, I thought that it was all done and they were going to vote on it during the night, but they got tired and left before they voted on it.”
Ericka Dodge, spokeswoman for Alfond, the senate president, said the governor had revised history.
“He (LePage) killed his own bill, not the Legislature,” said. “He killed the compromise.”
Asked why Democratic leaders won’t call for a special session, Dodge said, “We wish we could do more for the nursing homes. We tried. But the governor has been very clear that he is not a willing partner with the Legislature, that he’s going to take this my-way-or-the-highway approach. We have no interest in putting on another show for the governor.”
Meanwhile, it’s unclear why the governor won’t use his executive authority to call a special session himself. Asked why Le-Page didn’t compel lawmakers to return to the State House, his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett said, “Why are legislators, Democratic leadership, putting it on the governor? We’ve presented solutions, that’s what we’ve done.”
She added, “He’s giving them the opportunity to do the right thing.”
Bennett was asked if the governor was willing to compromise.
“They (lawmakers) have to come in first to find out,” she said.
Correction: This story was revised at 10:07 a.m., July 17, 2014, to state that Gov. LePage criticized Rep. Mike Michaud, a former state lawmaker, for voting for a bill in the Legislature 12 years ago that would have taxed some Social Security recipients. The bill did not pass.