Wednesday, March 12, 2014
AUGUSTA — The Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee blocked Gov. Paul LePage’s surprise attempt to speak Sunday during an emergency meeting called to address the governor’s recent claim that the Department of Health and Human Services won’t be able to pay MaineCare providers come May 28.
After being denied a chance to speak, Gov. Paul LePage said: “It’s unfortunate the people of the state of Maine are being played for patsies.”
Steve Mistler/State House Bureau
Democratic leaders, skeptical of the timing and motive behind the claim, made a letter that LePage sent to them late Friday the subject of Sunday’s emergency meeting to question DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew about the finances of her department.
LePage asked to address the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee as it was preparing to recess. Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, told the governor that she didn’t want to inject politics into a meeting during which lawmakers had agreed that the shortfall could be fixed by the end of the week.
“I mean no disrespect to you, but ... I know there’s a lot of politics at play here,” Hill said.
“No,” LePage interrupted. “There’s no politics. I’m a pragmatic person. I do not play politics.”
The exchange went on for about two minutes. At one point, LePage rose to leave the room. He then stopped and returned to the dais, saying the committee was denying him the chance to speak.
“It’s unfortunate that the people of the state of Maine are being played for patsies,” he said.
The exchange followed an emergency session during which Democrats grilled LePage administration officials over the letter the governor sent to legislative leaders Friday evening. LePage claimed that the Legislature needed to approve the state’s next two-year budget by the end of this week or risk delaying MaineCare reimbursement payments.
The governor said Democratic leaders were “engaging in Washington-style politics” because the Legislature had not yet approved the state’s next two-year budget. Meanwhile, LePage said, “a crisis is looming that will affect our most needy citizens.”
Democratic leaders immediately questioned the timing and the motive of the letter. Their sentiment did not change after Sunday’s emergency meeting when they learned that the shortfall amount was identical to that contained in a budget change package submitted by the administration in early May. The committee held a public hearing on the change package Friday.
“It’s standard procedure for the governor, trying to manufacture a crisis,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. “That’s what he does. The funny thing about it was his own people, his own commissioner came in and put that to bed.”
Jackson was referring to LePage’s finance commissioner, Sawin Millett. Millett told lawmakers that they could resolve the funding gap either by adopting the change package quickly or through a supplemental budget request.
“It’s not rocket science, nor is it impossible,” Millett told the committee.
Jackson said, “Unlike the governor, who was trying to throw gas on everything, (Millett) was quite calm and understands the process.”
Lawmakers on the committee eventually agreed that they could patch the funding gap in time to make the payments to providers of MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, the public insurance program for low-income residents.
However, Democratic members also questioned why the administration hadn’t made them aware of the looming shortfall deadline until 5 p.m. Friday.
Democrats later accused the administration of inventing the crisis for political gain amid high-profile debates over the state’s two-year budget and Democratic leaders’ plan to expand MaineCare.
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