New report on Maine’s fiscal state could renew old fights over social service spending

Good morning from Augusta, where lawmakers will receive a deep and weedy annual report on state government’s fiscal health that claims some continuing points of contention within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

The report from State Auditor Pola Buckley flags the state’s continued use of federal funds at Riverview Psychiatric Center, the state-run hospital in Augusta that was decertified by the federal government in 2013 over myriad issues, including the use of corrections officers.

The auditor says that Maine may need to pay back federal money spent at Riverview, but the LePage administration says it hasn’t gotten firm guidance. The report finds $14 million in costs during the 2017 fiscal year that Buckley defines as not being spent in accordance with requirements. All of that is federal money spent on Riverview during that year that the auditor says may violate federal regulations.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services said that it hasn’t gotten guidance from the federal government on this and that it continues to spend this money while working with the administration of President Donald Trump on recertification. But the department also says it has gotten “no clear guidance” on how to regain certification.

The report is weedy, but it contains lots of examples of other potential issues with internal state controls. The audit is always worth a read for government wonks and highlights certain weaknesses in government disbursements. Buckley flagged potential overpayment in unemployment benefits and weaker-than-required monitoring of agencies that pass along Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for the state.

Three more vetoes

Among the legislative business planned for today and tomorrow are three new vetoes signed by Gov. Paul LePage late last week. One is a bill that has been hotly debated dating back to last year would allow credit unions to give accounts to marijuana-related businesses by allowing the credit unions to be insured privately as opposed to federally, where marijuana businesses are illegal in law. LePage said he vetoed the bill because he views it as unconstitutional.

LePage also vetoed a bill sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, that would implement some provisions of the Affordable Care Act, including allowing people 26 or younger to remain on their parents’ health insurance. The third veto from Friday is of a bill sponsored by Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, which would allow the sharing of certain medical data between the state and regional medical boards.

Senate approves LePage’s pick to lead housing authority

The Maine Senate unanimously backed him on Thursday. The governor’s first nominee for director of the Maine State Housing Authority — Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais — was turned back by Democrats. Then, LePage turned to Daniel Brennan, a longtime authority employee who was seen as an uncontroversial pick. He proved to be on Thursday, when the Maine Senate confirmed him in a 34-0 vote.

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are in this morning, with the House returning to what has become a perennial issue for consideration: tribal gaming. The bill in question would allow the state to give casino licenses to federally recognized Indian tribes, but it’s probably already dead, just like all the past attempts have been. The bill passed narrowly in the House but was rejected last week in the Senate, 21-13.

Rep. Henry Bear of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians told the Bangor Daily News last week that he may move to call on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to rule on the legality of tribal gaming, which he has been talking about doing since early this year.

Another high-profile bill could become deadlocked between the chambers when LePage’s proposal to put a moratorium on wind permits everywhere except a portion of Aroostook County comes to the Senate. The bill already passed the Senate and failed the House, but could be dead for good this morning when it comes back to the Senate for what is likely a final vote. Check out the full House and Senate calendars by clicking here and here.

The action will be hot and heavy  this afternoon in the Education Committee, which is considering bills that could make major changes to Maine’s system of granting high school graduations based on proficiency-based diplomas, which are currently being put into place after years of work. One bill would repeal proficiency-based standards, another would delay them for another year and a third, coming from LePage, would repeal the standards and replace them with a requirement that the issuance of a high school diploma be based on alternative state standards. There are also a few other committees meeting this afternoon; check out the full schedule by clicking here.

Reading list

  • We asked the Democratic gubernatorial candidates five questions on key issues and here are their answers. In advance of Tuesday’s BDN/WGME debate, the topics included gun control, abortion rights, Maine’s referendum process, Medicaid expansion and LePage’s legacy.
  • Susan Collins said a deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria might warrant a U.S. military response. Maine’s Republican senator told CNN on Sunday that a “targeted attack to take out some of the facilities” used to produce the nerve gas that killed at least 42 people at a rebel-held site near Damascus was an option. Last year, Collins commended the Trump administration for a similar strike near Homs. Meanwhile, Israel launched an airstrike against a Syrian airfield near Homs, according to the Syrian and Russian governments.
  • One of the nation’s biggest producers of ‘fake news’ lives in Waterboro. The Boston Globe tracked down Christopher Blair, who goes by the online pseudonym “Busta Troll” and has made a living for years writing stories with headlines such as “College Prank Kills 2 — Malia Obama a ‘Prime Suspect,’ ” but he says it’s satirical work from a self-describes “liberal troll” looking to undercut conservatives who would believe what he writes.
  • Maine lost another moderate voice on Friday. Merton Henry, an attorney who advised Margaret Chase Smith, Olympia Snowe and Collins and befriended former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, died Friday in Portland. He was 92.
  • A young woman who was allegedly murdered last month in Bangor had struggled with addiction. Desiree York’s family and friends told BDN writers that she had been a bubbly, charismatic person until her life took a sharp negative turn four or five years ago. York, 36, and Michael Bridges, 43, were found dead on March 28 in a burning box truck. She left behind a young daughter, her parents, who live in Knox, and seven half-siblings.

Drowning in culture and casseroles

You probably think the Daily Brief team spends all weekend reading committee reports, the state audit and budget documents, but you’re wrong. We’re right up to our gills in culture (as far as you know).

This weekend was a one-two cultural punch for the Cousins family. On Sunday, my wife and I trekked to Orono to hear the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, the University of Maine Singers and the Oratorio Society perform “Masterworks V,” with selections from Mozart and Beethoven. Live orchestras never disappoint for me, but I must say the missus and I were blown away by the power of the choir and orchestra together.

On Saturday, we had a much different experience. We loaded up the kids and went to Chap’s Saloon in Buxton, where a sign on the door bars “club colors” and “attitudes.” We were unsure which clubs’ colors we were wearing but the entire second-floor gathering was steeped in attitudes of merriment. That’s where the Half Moon Jug Band, led by the BDN’s own Troy R. Bennett, was recording the live half of another upcoming album.

There was lots of singing, and casseroles. Let me explain: One of the Jug Band’s well-worn hits is called Tuna Noodle, Baby. I hope I’m not revealing copyright secrets but the live version is coming to the new album. In celebration, the band offered a free casserole lunch centering around Troy’s rendition (the kind you eat) of tuna noodle.

The music was great. Most of the casseroles were tasty. Let’s just say Troy will be eating tuna noodle all week.

A friend who was new to the band posted, “My kids have been singing ‘Tuna Noodle Baby’ all day long” with a crying face emoji.

“You’re welcome!” responded Troy.

Here’s your soundtrack, from a previous album. You, too can sing it all day! Contact Troy for the kind you eat. — Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this 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.

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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.