Politics

April 7, 2013

Bill Nemitz: No niceties – or facts – constrain Maine's governor

Traditionally in Maine, governors past and present tend not to speak ill of one another. Pressed on how they feel about this or that chief executive, they dodge, they demur, they deflect -- anything to avoid a nose-to-nose confrontation with a fellow member of the Blaine House Club.

Until now.

"I'd always thought that (when you're) in leadership in Maine, you always want to demonstrate best practices -- both parties working together, that kind of respect for each other," said former Gov. John Baldacci on Friday. "And obviously in this administration, that doesn't happen."

He was talking about a 30-second TV ad, now airing statewide, that chides Baldacci for "walking away" from Maine's $484 million hospital debt. It then lauds Gov. Paul LePage as a financial wizard using his "successful business background" to make it all right again.

More on the ad in a second. First, a couple of more far-reaching questions:

Did Baldacci come out swinging last week to signal he wants to run yet again for governor and send LePage packing in 2014?

And political prognostications aside, do we detect, dare we say, a distinctly personal tone to this gubernatorial dust-up?

"It feels that way," replied Baldacci. "I said to myself, 'Whether you run or not, somebody's got to stand up to this kind of stuff.'"

You heard that right, folks: John Baldacci, the diminutive Democrat, going mano-a-mano with the Big Guy. Just a thought, but has anyone considered selling tickets to this thing?

Back to the ad.

Produced by Maine People Before Politics -- also known as LePage's former transition team -- the campaign-style spot opens thusly:

"Walking out, Baldacci's team left hundreds of millions of dollars of welfare debt through unpaid hospital bills, causing layoffs, threatening care for seniors and families."

That sentence alone, argues Baldacci, contains two "erroneous claims."

First, he said, it suggests "I was walking away from the problem and not addressing the hospital debt issue."

In fact, Baldacci and the Legislature oversaw $3.7 billion in state and federal Medicaid (known in these parts as MaineCare) payments to the hospitals over the past decade. And in 2009, they passed Maine's new "pay-as-you-go" policy, which balances the books annually and thus prevents any such debt from accumulating in the future.

(Funny how in the ad, pay-as-you-go is heralded as a key component of LePage's "common-sense plan.")

Baldacci's second objection: the ad's claim that the hospital debt threatens care "for seniors and families." Or as longtime LePage pal Charlie Gaunce, president of the board of Maine People Before Politics, put it so mindlessly in a prepared statement last week, "Our hospitals cannot treat the sick ... while the state owes this large welfare debt."

Seriously, Charlie? Can you produce one poor patient who went untreated because Maine's hospitals -- three of which are currently undergoing major expansions -- can't afford to care for the sick?

"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Baldacci. "And it's been consistent for (LePage's) administration to give out those mistruths and half-truths."

Why Maine People Before Politics even launched the ad is, in itself, a head-scratcher.

While some wrinkles still need to be ironed out, Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature are already on board with the cornerstone of LePage's repayment plan -- using revenues from the state's soon-to-be-renegotiated liquor contract to cover Maine's $186 million share of the hospital debt. (The remaining $298 million comes automatically from the federal government -- the TV ad gives LePage credit for that, too.)

So, with both parties already inching toward common ground, why toss this bombshell into the deliberations?

(Continued on page 2)

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