Maine lawmakers are back and itching to fight about Medicaid expansion

Good morning from Augusta. The Maine Legislature is back on Wednesday to begin a session expected to last until April. It will be dominated by the ghosts of campaigns past and present, and the battle around voter-approved Medicaid expansion is the best example.

Republicans would like to get rid of expansion; Democrats want to fund it, but have no apparent plan. Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, told WGAN on Tuesday that he “would love to see this Medicaid expansion repealed.” Gov. Paul LePage, a stalwart opponent of expansion, has erected high hurdles for Democrats to pay for the unfunded law, with the Republican saying he won’t allow it if they raise taxes, raid surpluses or fund it at a lower cost than his administration’s disputed estimate. When pressed on how he would fund it, Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, told WGAN that he’s “not exactly sure,” but since the referendum easily passed, “it’s not a question of doing it, it’s a question of how.”

But there’s no clear path for either party to get what they want. In a more-or-less evenly divided Legislature, Republicans don’t have the votes to repeal expansion. But they have a trump card in LePage’s veto power, which functionally keeps Democrats within the confines of LePage’s near-impossible demands on funding the law. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, told WVOM on Tuesday that expansion will be “a non-issue this session.”

There could be less incentive for Republicans to negotiate on this with three legislative leaders running for governor. Mason and Fredette are running for the Republican nomination to replace the term-limited LePage in 2018, alongside Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who has drawn LePage’s ire in the past for working with Democrats to pass state budgets. LePage may be Maine’s most popular politician among state Republicans, with 79 percent approving of him in a poll last year. Fredette alluded to LePage’s issues with the Senate on the radio Tuesday, saying “when Republicans act like Republicans and really act like conservatives, we will get stuff done.” In the gubernatorial primary, the legislative candidates are also running against former Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, perhaps the best-known expansion opponent besides LePage, and businessman Shawn Moody, whose campaign is being run by LePage insiders.

The not-so-hot take? It may seem strange to everyday Mainers who backed expansion, but Augusta’s machinations make funding it an issue more likely to be settled at the ballot box in November and in the Legislature afterward than during this short legislative session.

Democrats enlist 2 top Maine Senate recruits for 2018

A legislative leader and former Maine labor commission kicked off their campaigns on Tuesday. House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, launched her bid to replace Thibodeau in the Waldo County seat at a Tuesday event. A more under-the-radar launch came in Lincoln County, where Laura Fortman of Nobleboro, a former Maine labor commissioner and Obama administration official, declared a run against Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro. Both seats are Democratic pickup opportunities in 2018. Thibodeau and Dow won two of the five closest Senate races in 2016. Former state Rep. Jayne Crosby Giles, R-Belfast, said Tuesday that she’s “planning to run” for Thibodeau’s seat with a formal announcement coming next week. Her party has only a one-seat advantage in the chamber.

Today in A-town

After months of being mostly barren, the halls of the State House will be bustling again today. Sometime around 10 a.m., the House and Senate will begin the early session business of routing dozens of bills to committees. You can see their daily calendars by clicking here and here. Also on the Senate calendar are numerous LePage nominations for various boards and committees, most or all of which will have to be vetted by legislative committees before coming back to the full Senate for confirmation.

There is a bit of unusual business expected in the House this morning when Mason’s father, Rick Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, is seated to represent House District 130. Mason succeeds his late wife, Gina Mason, who died in September 2017. Rick Mason, a Republican, won her seat convincingly and has been appointed to the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.

The committee schedule is packed. Several committees have presentations scheduled, including Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap briefing the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee about the possibility of establishing a presidential primary in Maine and a presentation of an Opioid Task Force’s final recommendations to the Health and Human Services Committee. Also on the docket is what is expected to be a lengthy hearing on proposed changes to citizen initiative petition rules, including a proposal that signature gatherers be restricted to 50 feet away from polling locations. The Health and Human Services Committee will hold public hearings on two bills that have to do with vaccinations and immunizations.

Reading list

  • Central Maine Power says the costs of the October windstorm will top $15 million. The state’s biggest utility company will submit more detailed cost breakdowns later this month, but they warned the Maine Public Utilities Commission about the expected cost on Tuesday. If the commission finds the estimate legitimate, CMP’s customers will face a rate hike.
  • And another ‘bomb cyclone’ is headed in Maine’s direction. Forecasters expect the storm to bring blizzard-like conditions to eastern Maine on Thursday, with the center of the storm expected to pass somewhere between Eastport and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Up to a foot of snow is expected Down East through the beginning of Friday, with lower figures expected in the rest of the state. But much of Maine could see winds between 30 and 45 mph.
  • LePage told a teenager concerned about the end of ‘net neutrality’ to ‘pick up a book.’ The Village Soup got a note from the governor to Camden Hills Regional High School senior Hope Osgood that said “Pick up a book and read!” after she bemoaned the Federal Communications Commission’s recent repeal of net neutrality. Here’s your soundtrack. It’s about a book, but you’ll still need the Internet to hear it.

Frankie says: Be prepared

We at Daily Brief are huge fans of Canadian storm beacon Frankie MacDonald. It makes sense. He has his own soundtrack.

The resident of Sydney, Nova Scotia, brings a level of enthusiasm and commitment to public engagement that’s admirable in this age of detached, cynical screen watchers. We own Frankie T-shirts. We are saving up for the action figure.

Frankie has already sounded the alarm for a “massive storm” on Thursday. He’s telling everyone in Nova Scotia to order their pizzas and Thai food early. “Don’t wait to the last minute. Do it right now,” he advises.

That same storm is due to hit Maine, so pay close attention to Frankie’s list of storm preparations that would make the Maine Emergency Management Agency proud.

Frankie’s biggest concern with the upcoming storm? Really strong winds that could “blow the siding off” houses. Hold on to your sides. And as Frankie says, “Be safe.” Here’s your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading it on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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.