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?

Some speculate that as long as Baldacci even considers running for his old job, LePage & Co. will reflexively attack, attack and attack some more.

Others suggest that the ad, early in the electoral cycle as it may be, is simply a device to deepen LePage's donor pool -- hence the "Sign the Petition" prompt that appears in the final frame.

Think about it: LePage's simple message -- "I'm paying off the hospital debt!" -- resonates with any Mainer who's ever felt the relief and satisfaction that comes with closing out a car loan or, better yet, a home mortgage.

Baldacci's rebuttal -- "This is complicated stuff, but I made paying the hospitals my top priority and, over eight years, forked over more millions than LePage ever will!" -- may provide a more honest and accurate account of what actually happened before LePage came along. But try fitting it into an easily digested, 30-second sound bite.

There is, of course, one more explanation for LePage's campaign-style ambush -- one that Baldacci and more than a few Democrats in the Legislature say is as plain as the perpetual scowl on the Big Guy's face: the looming showdown between LePage and the Legislature's Democratic majority over the state's next biennial budget.

"He doesn't want the discussion to be on the budget," said Baldacci. "It's everything else but the budget. And that budget's going to shift $400 million onto property taxpayers, it's going to cut and eliminate General Assistance, it's going to put pressure on education and teachers and teacher retirement and pensions. And I think those are the real issues that need to be discussed."

Indeed. Yet even with the next gubernatorial election 19 long months away, it's no longer a matter of when the gloves will come off. This, ladies and gentlemen, will be a bare-knuckle fight from the get-go.

Baldacci has made it no secret he'll readily step aside should U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud decide to give up his 2nd District congressional seat and take his own run at LePage. (Michaud and LePage got into a tussle of their own last week over the possible expansion of MaineCare under the Affordable Care Act.)

Still, with or without Baldacci in the ring, this much is clear: The Blaine House Club's no-fighting policy is hereby suspended until further notice.

"I guess we have to develop thicker skins," Baldacci said. "But we also need to stand up and, like Paul Harvey used to say, tell the rest of the story."

It's about time.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

 

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