December 2, 2013

State House Notebook: Alfond denies Medicaid votes-chemical bill trade

The Senate president explains the vote to kill a bill making phthalates a priority chemical.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Gov. Paul LePage has been taking a beating from Democrats and advocates of the Kids Safe Products Act, a law that identifies and tries to phase out harmful chemicals from consumer products.

click image to enlarge

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, right, with Speaker of the House Mark Eves, D-North Berwick

Kennebec Journal file photo/Joe Phelan

The criticism stems from the governor’s decision last week to put four chemicals on the so-called priority list, supposedly ending the administration’s nearly three-year resistance to a law that it once tried to repeal.

But advocates of the law and Democrats in the House of Representatives called the LePage administration’s list a “sham,” arguing that many of the chemicals elevated as a priority – mercury, arsenic, cadmium and formaldehyde – were already being phased out of consumer products. Groups like Environmental Health Strategies and the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine argued that the LePage administration’s action was “election-year trickery,” a move that symbolically put the governor on the right side of a law designed to protect pregnant women and children while not upsetting industry allies.

It’s not clear if it was intentional, but LePage isn’t the only one implicated in the criticism.

The administration’s announcement closely coincided with the recent demise of a bill sponsored by Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, that would have added phthalates to the priority list. Phthalates, added to plastics to make them more flexible and durable, have been in the news a lot lately because they mimic hormones and have been linked to premature birth, adverse impacts on male fetuses and health problems in teenagers.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, voted with the Republican minority to spike Grant’s bill, prompting questions about whether he did so to preserve or obtain Republican votes on other measures, most notably Medicaid expansion, a priority for Democratic lawmakers and a key component of the Affordable Care Act.

At the center of this rumored deal is Sen. Tom Saviello, a moderate Republican from Wilton. Saviello, who has publicly endorsed Medicaid expansion, once played a key role in staving off the repeal of the Kids Safe Products Act in 2011 (the Environmental Health Strategies Center thanked him for it). However, Saviello has since drawn advocates’ ire for vocally opposing measures to strengthen the law, including one sponsored by former Senate Democratic leader Seth Goodall of Richmond, whose high-profile bill met a conspicuously quiet death earlier this year.

Saviello said he objected to Goodall’s bill because it was an overreach and unraveled the compromise he worked to achieve in 2011. Advocates suspected a more nefarious motive, specifically the $5,250 that the American Chemistry Council has donated to Saviello’s leadership PAC.

Saviello on Tuesday took exception to the implication that his resistance to Goodall’s bill, or Grant’s bill, was a quid pro quo with the American Chemistry Council, a leading opponent of the Kids Safe law. He also flatly denied speculation that he threatened to withhold his support for Medicaid expansion if Alfond didn’t vote with Republicans to oppose Grant’s bill.

“I’ve already said that I support Medicaid expansion and that’s not going to change,” he said.

Alfond, meanwhile, also denied that his opposition to Grant’s bill had anything to do with a deal for Medicaid expansion.

“Absolutely not,” he said last week. “Whoever is saying that is 100 percent making things up and I don’t appreciate it.”

Nonetheless, Alfond felt compelled to explain his vote, which he did in an email to Senate Democrats. He cited the LePage administration’s announcement about the four priority chemicals.

While he wished that the list was longer and included phthalates, the governor was technically complying with the law.

“Before the KSPA, chemicals were cherry picked individually and there was no rhyme or reason,” he wrote. “I don’t want to go back to that system.”

(Continued on page 2)

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