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Partisan Battle over Maine Hospital Debt Escalates
03/07/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The partisan stand-off over unpaid Medicaid debt to Maine hospitals continues in Augusta. Democratic leaders accuse Republican Gov. Paul LePage of holding voter-approved bonds hostage until his demands are met. The widening dispute could very well threaten Democratic hopes to advance legislation in the current session, with the governor renewing his threat not to sign any bills until the hospitals are paid. A.J. Higgins has more.

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The ongoing dispute really boils down to simple math. Democrats see the half-billion dollars in Medicaid debt owed to Maine hospitals, the renegotiation of the state's liquor contract for the next 10 years, and more than $100 million in voter-approved bond projects as three separate and distinct proposals.

Gov. Paul LePage, on the other hand, sees the three as connected.

"The governor has essentially given the Legislature and the people of Maine a ransom note," says Democratic Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall. Goodall says that ransom note sends a clear message: "Pass my liquor bill and I will release the bonds -- bonds that have been approved by the people of Maine."

Democratic leaders called an afternoon press conference to vent their frustration over LePage's refusal to release $104 million for bond projects. The bonds were authorized by the voters more than three years ago, and others were approved last November.

The state can wait for up to five years to release bonds once they're approved by the voters, but Goodall says the state's economy could use the boost now.

"Those bonds could be released today," he said. "In fact, the last round of bonds could have been released 120 days ago. Today we say this: If the governor is truly invested in getting more than 3,200 people back to work, then he will release the bonds immediately. In fact, he could do this today."

The package includes $51 million for transportation infrastructure and improvements, and $53 million for conservation, clean water upgrades, and energy-efficiency projects. As important as jobs are to the state, Democratic House Majority Leader Seth Berry says what's most disturbing is the governor's refusal to honor the wishes of Maine people.

"Maine people have already stated loudly and clearly that they want these common sense investments to fuel our future," Berry said. "The governor must stop disrespecting the will of Maine people. These bonds have already won the approval of Maine voters, but the governor has taken them hostage. If the governor respected the will of Maine voters, these bonds would already be supporting jobs in areas like transportation, higher education, construction and clean water improvements."

"The governor would be happy to release the authorized bonds once we pay off this old debt," says LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. "However, it's Washington-style management to issue new debt when we have not paid our bills."

Bennett says the governor is frustrated at the Democrats' refusal to act quickly on his proposal that would commit future state liquor sales to pay off a revenue bond that would be used to pay back Maine's hospitals.

LePage is taking his sales pitch for his plan on the road, with a planned stop in Lewiston at the Central Maine Medical Center. He is also scheduled to appear before the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Monday, when his bill gets a public hearing.


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