Monday, March 10, 2014
Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.
(UPDATE: I missed another piece of the cross-pollination of Americans Elect people with the Campaign for Maine and Cutler. Peter Ackerman, founder of the investment firm Rockport Capital, gave $1,500 to Cutler during the last reporting period. Ackerman is the same guy who jump-started AE's ballot initiative in 2011-12 with an $8 million donation.).
A couple of weeks ago, members of the Maine media received a press release from a political consultant based in Pacific Palisades, Calif. announcing a press conference in Portland and held by two Maine state senators, one out of office.
That alone would make someone curious. But the consultant setting up the event was Ilena Wachtel, the the former spokeswoman for Americans Elect, a national non-profit originally formed to introduce a bipartisan presidential ticket for the 2012 election. Americans Elect's online convention experiment failed, but the group's stocked coffers were eventually put into action when AE spent over $1 million during the 2012 Maine U.S. Senate race to help elect U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
The Portland press conference was set up to blast EqualityMaine's recent endorsement of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud. Independent candidate Eliot Cutler, who has donated a lot of money to the group, was extremely unhappy with the endorsement snub.
Easy out: “It seems like there’s an increasing willingness for the state to solve its fiscal problems on the backs of property taxpayers. They all point fingers and blame the other (party), but that’s what it’s come down to. The easiest way out for legislators is to take actions that are not directly attributable to them.” --Geoff Herman, legislative affairs liaison for Maine Municipal Association (1.5.14)
Herman's said that earlier this month when state lawmakers were anticipating a significant budget gap for the upcoming session. Sure enough last week Democratic leaders announced that there was a $100 million shortfall at the Department of Health and Human Services. And then, late Monday, the LePage administration announced that the state faces a $119 million budget shortfall.
The recent news will intensify negotiations over a possible supplemental plan to fill the gap. Some Republicans are already calling for cuts at the Department of Health and Human Services, cuts that the Democratic majority won't likely support. With that large of a gap, and a potential veto by Gov. Paul LePage -- who isn't participating in the budget process other than to say the books are not balanced -- it's logical to start thinking of things upon which both parties can agree. That's not going to be much, particularly in an election year.
So what does that mean for the budget negotiations?
Charles Colgan, the former state economist now with the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine, isn't criticizing the Medicaid expansion analysis unveiled by the LePage administration last week.
But he is questioning one of the study's key assumptions.
It's an important one.
The analysis, part of the $925,000 taxpayer-funded welfare study by the Alexander Group, assumes that there will be a 33 percent increase in the number of Mainers living in poverty by 2020. The assumption has a significant impact on one of the report's head-turning findings that enrollment in Medicaid -- known in here as MaineCare -- will balloon to 124,000 people by 2023.
Gary Alexander, the disputed welfare reformer from Rhode Island, will present the Medicaid feasibility portion of his $925,000 taxpayer-funded study to Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday.
The Democratic co-chairs of the committee had previously asked Alexander to brief the committee. Then, after Alexander presented his report on Friday, the committee analyst sent a notice stating that his appearance was canceled by Democratic co-chairs, Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston. The cancellation triggered a swift response from Republicans, who claimed that Democrats were so unnerved by Alexander's findings that they were attempting muzzle him.
"Now the Democrats are suddenly saying they don't want live testimony, and that the written report will do," said Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, in a statement released Saturday. "I don't know if it's because the results of the study make it inconvenient to conduct their usual publicity stunt or because they just don't want to hear information that contradicts their desired outcome, but it's wrong either way."
On Sunday, Farnsworth and Craven released a statement saying uninviting Alexander was a mistake and done "in haste." They said they were under the impression that Alexander would present his report Wednesday during the public hearing on a bill that would expand Medicaid.
Pivot: Democratic leaders have whipped up a new slogan to address the LePage administration's recent claim that thousands of EBT cards were used at smoke shops, liquor stores and strip clubs. Prosecute, don't politicize.
The slogan wasn't in the letter that Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves sent Thursday to the Office of the Attorney General, but that appeared to be the subtext. If the LePage administration has uncovered misuse of EBT transactions, Alfond and Eves wrote, then the state should prosecute.
The number of questionable transactions is approximately less than two-tenths of a percent of the total EBT withdrawals, but Alfond and Eves said, "We cannot tolerate the abuse of these critical programs, no matter how small the amount."
They also took a bit of swipe at the Department of Health and Human Services, which the letter noted, owned most of the responsibility to combat abuse and had received additional funding and manpower to weed it out and enforce integrity laws. The latter included the 2012 law signed by Gov. Paul LePage that prohibited EBT transactions in certain locations, such as liquor stores, bars and strip joints. Some Democrats have blamed the administration for not adequately enforcing that law (LePage vowed to do better).