We still don’t know how Poliquin will vote on GOP health bill

Good morning from Augusta, where Gov. Paul LePage and legislative Republicans have pushed for changes now melded into their party’s national health care bill. U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin pushed for others at a White House meeting on Tuesday.

But with a vote expected in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday and top Republicans ruling out more changes that they say would jeopardize the bill’s chances in the Senate — where it already looks like it has a hard road to passage — such efforts may be futile.

The American Health Care Act is Republicans’ plan to replace the Affordable Care Act ushered in under former President Barack Obama, largely substituting tax credits and state grants for subsidies in the current law.

From the conservative side, Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and 25 legislative Republicans co-signed a letter with other state lawmakers last week urging an immediate freeze of Medicaid expansion and the repeal of Obamacare insurance regulations. Maine is one of 19 states that hasn’t expanded Medicaid under the law.

They got the changes to Medicaid, one of LePage’s big sticking points: Originally, the law would have wound down support for Medicaid expansion after 2020, but states would now be barred immediately from expanding, according to CNN.

However, moderates are still spooked by the plan’s high costs for people shy of Medicare age. In Maine’s rural 2nd Congressional District, cost figures attached to the plan aren’t pretty.

A 60-year-old in Piscataquis County who earns $30,000 a year would see federal aid drop by nearly 60 percent from $9,730 under Obamacare to $4,000, with someone needing to make $50,000 there to see a net benefit under the plan.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican, cited that calculation as a reason she can’t support the bill in its current form, according to the Portland Press Herald.

But Poliquin, a Republican from the 2nd District, hasn’t said how he’ll vote on the plan after releasing a vaguely supportive statement when it was unveiled.

On Tuesday, he released a statement saying that he met with President Donald Trump on Tuesday to push for bigger tax credits for people between the ages of 50 and 64, while applauding other changes to the package that will leave elements of welfare policy to states.

But he didn’t take a position on it, with Poliquin spokesman Brendan Conley saying he is “continuing to carefully study and push for changes in this health care relief proposal.”

However, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that further changes could harm the bill’s chances of passage, saying, “We don’t want to put something in this bill that the Senate is telling us is fatal.”

So, Poliquin may well have to decide on this as is. He’s the one to watch in Maine’s delegation now. — Michael Shepherd

LePage, counties to cooperate on jail funding

LePage held a State House meeting with Maine county officials on Tuesday to address one of state government’s biggest structural problems: Who’s going to pay for county jails.

Persistent cost overruns led the Maine Legislature and former Gov. John Baldacci to create a shared state-county jail system in 2008 that capped the cost for property taxpayers at $62 million, with the state promising to pay the difference.

But the governor has called for either the state or counties to take over and pay for the system, and because of that, he effectively neutered the state Board of Corrections by refusing to fill positions there. Meanwhile, shortfalls have persisted.

This year, eight counties are asking for $2.9 million in emergency state funding to close shortfalls, the biggest of which is in Oxford County, at $800,000. Others are in Penobscot, Kennebec, Aroostook, Androscoggin, Hancock, York and Piscataquis counties. LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett didn’t say whether or not LePage would support the emergency funding on Tuesday.

After the meeting with LePage on Tuesday, Kennebec County Administrator Bob Devlin said the governor offered to have his staff work with counties on a long-term solution that would either involve state control or a gradual phase-in of full county control.

“Any meeting that’s going to have an end result of better collaboration is worthwhile,” Bennett said. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • Maine was second in voter turnout in 2016. With 72.8 percent of registered voters participating in the 2016 election, Maine only finished behind Minnesota to claim the second-highest turnout in the nation, according to a report from Nonprofit Votes. Maine consistently rates high for turnout and was No. 1 in the 2014 midterm election. The report cited the state’s same-day registration law as a key factor. — Michael Shepherd
  • LePage will be in Gorham tonight for a rescheduled town hall meeting. The governor will be at Spire 29 on the Square at 29 School St. from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. after postponing an event due to the snowstorm earlier this month. — Michael Shepherd
  • But you’d rather see him tend bar in Hallowell on Monday. LePage will be the “celebrity bartender” at The Quarry Tap Room in downtown Hallowell, which has had politicians pour drinks for charity. He’ll be there from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Monday, with $1 from every drink going to the Travis Mills Foundation. We’ll be there, we’re taking difficult cocktail requests and yes, we’ll report back. Given the governor’s past pronouncements about the press, we imagine this would be the soundtrack in his head while pouring a reporter a beer. — Michael Shepherd
  • A bid to block lawmakers from approval rights of capital area construction projects is dying. As you may remember, the 128th Legislature revved up in December and January embroiled in a controversy regarding the construction of a new state-run forensic psychiatric facility. After Democrats on the Legislative Council blocked Gov. Paul LePage’s bid to build the facility in Augusta without vetting by the Legislature, LePage opted to move the project to Bangor, out of the jurisdiction of the Legislative Council. A bill sponsored by Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, sought to end the council’s involvement in approving building projects, but the bill appears headed for defeat after opposing votes in the House and Senate. The House voted on strict party lines on March 7 against the bill but the Senate voted Tuesday — again on strict party lines — against it. More procedural votes are coming but the bill is tracking to die between the chambers. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are off today but there is a looooong list of committee work on the docket. In this section of the Daily Brief we try to give you a sampling of the bills up for debate but there’s no science to it. We just list a few of the ones that seem interesting to us but we’re open to your suggestions if you have them. Here goes:

  • The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee has an interesting set of public hearings this morning on proposals ranging from campaign finance rules to two bills that have do with liquor. The committee is also considering a bill that would make it legal for anyone to purchase voter registration lists, which are currently limited to only candidates, officeholders and political action committee.
  • The State and Local Government Committee will take testimony on a bill to allow the Aroostook Band of Micmacs to have a representative in the Legislature and the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee is considering bills to do with student safety, including defenses against identity theft.
  • The Taxation Committee will grapple with an issue that’s been controversial during LePage’s tenure: Municipal revenue sharing. The committee will be introduced to a handful of proposals to stop, continue or alter how much funding towns receive from the state. One bill offers a concept that LePage says he supports: Sending revenue-sharing checks directly to property taxpayers instead of to their municipalities. It’s a relatively new idea that could represent a compromise between the “eliminate revenue sharing” crowd and those who think the state ought to throw an occasional bone to municipalities. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

A question Gorsuch couldn’t answer but I can

Amid the hours of confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch, who is Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, there were moments of both tension and levity. Oh, and also ridiculousness. Blame the latter on the son of U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who was texting his father suggested questions during Tuesday’s hearing.

“Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses,” asked Flake, “or one horse-sized duck?”

Gorsuch was flummoxed.

“You can tell him I’ve very rarely at a loss for words, but you got me,” he said.

If Gorsuch can be so easily stumped, I worry for the future of the judicial branch. Let’s break it down: 100 duck-sized horses would pose just about no threat at all. The worst they could do would be gallop around your ankles and drive you mad with their tiny little hoofbeats. I suppose they could kick you — which is a horse’s only offensive move — but they could be thwarted easily with any decent pair of winter boots. If you could keep your balance, even 1,000 duck-sized horses would be little more than a collective nuisance. It’d be like visiting My Little Pony-ville.

Now, let’s think about a horse-sized duck. To begin with, ducks are wild animals and are basically jerks to humans. Have you ever tried to feed even a semi-tame one? Prepare to have the palm of your hand bitten. A horse-sized duck could and probably would take your arm right off and the quacking would be deafening. If you got hit by a wing of a duck taking off, you might be headed for a chiropractor.

Is this so difficult a decision? Is there any contest? I say no. If we can’t count on Gorsuch to make such an easy call, what can we expect when we ask him to decide on a constitutional question? Mr. Gorsuch, with all due respect, here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.