Maine high court offers more questions than answers in Medicaid expansion ruling

Good morning from Augusta, where the headlines might be making it look like we learned more about the future of voter-approved Medicaid expansion in Maine on Thursday than we did.

To be sure, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision was a victory for advocates of expanding coverage to 70,000 people under the federal Affordable Care Act, directing Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to submit an expansion plan to the federal government.

But there were differing views of key questions in the case sprinkled in the high court’s ruling, a concurring opinion and a dissent as the case shifts back to a lower court. It’s likely to be kicked back to the high court before the wrangling over expansion is finished.

The scope of the case will expand once it is sent back to a lower court. The high court voted 6-1 to back an opinion from Justice Joseph Jabar directing the state to file the expansion plan and sending key questions in the case back to Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy, who made an initial ruling that the LePage administration wanted the high court to delay further.

The law approved by Maine voters said the state must file the plan by April and make people eligible for coverage under expansion provisions by July, but the LePage administration did neither and advocates sued the state after it missed that first deadline under the law.

One of the key parts of Jabar’s decision directs Murphy to examine constitutional questions and “any issues that may have arisen” now that the deadline for coverage has passed, meaning that the progressive Maine Equal Justice Partners — which is leading the lawsuit — won’t have to file suit again to resolve issues around the July deadline.

The judicial system has only offered narrow answers on major sticking points in the case. Advocates asked a lot of legal questions of the Maine courts when they sued the LePage administration, including whether the state is obligated to expand Medicaid even without a dedicated appropriation. (LePage successfully vetoed a start-up funding plan earlier this year.)

Murphy — and the high court so far — have only definitively answered a technical question, saying that the plan must be filed. A concurring opinion from Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said the submission of the plan “will likely have no practical effect.”

The crux of LePage’s argument is that the state doesn’t have to commit to funding expansion if the Legislature hasn’t dedicated money to it, while advocates argue that the state’s $140 million surplus could be used.

We don’t how the courts as a whole will decide on that. But in his dissent, Justice Donald Alexander agreed with LePage, saying “there must be an appropriation to support the program properly enacted into law by the Legislature” before a state plan is filed and certainly before coverage is expanded. Saufley’s concurrence said she agreed with Alexander that “attention must be paid to the Legislature’s constitutional authority and responsibility for funding government programs.”

We’re entering a new and more substantive phase in this case. While Thursday’s ruling was good for expansion proponents, there’s still plenty of time for bad news given the legislative limbo around funding.

LePage child welfare bill has $21.4 million price tag

The most ambitious bill to be considered by the Legislature next week would provide one-time money aimed at shoring up the child welfare system. In yesterday’s Daily Brief, we told you about four child welfare bills and previewed a fifth that was released later on Thursday. That one carries a $21.4 million price tag to make a raft of changes to the system.

They include replacing an outdated case management system, increasing foster home reimbursement rates, funding administrative positions, boosting wages to caseworkers and incentivizing training. All five bills will be aired during a public hearing in Augusta on Monday.

Ethics panel to meet

The campaign finance watchdog will decide on Wednesday whether or not to levy fines for several minor violations during 2018 races. The Maine Ethics Commission has a mostly rote agenda for a meeting on Wednesday, where it will consider several late-filing penalties against political action committees and candidates in the June primary elections. Commission staff recommend a $500 penalty for a PAC run by the Maine Health Care Association and a $400 penalty for a PAC run by Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford.

Reading list

  • A law firm associated with  a controversial Portland developer who was convicted of fraud is now being sued. On Wednesday, women from Florida and Massachusetts filed a federal class-action lawsuit against a lawyer who has represented Michael Liberty and the law firm he helped found. They claim that George Marcus and the Marcus Clegg law firm knowingly helped Liberty with a scheme that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission say defrauded investors out of $50 million.
  • State police don’t believe an alleged robbery involving gunshots happened the way it was reported. The driver of a water tanker truck originally reported that two men in a red car fired a shot at the truck and robbed him on Interstate 95 near Howland around 6:20 p.m. Tuesday. But investigators now question the validity of some aspects of that report. They concluded that the truck was not targeted and that there is no ongoing risk to the public.
  • Bangor will receive a hefty chunk of change to help recruit firefighters. The city will use a $515,000 federal grant to increase its firefighting roster from 84 to 88, and funds positions that had been previously slashed from the city’s budget, Chief Thomas Higgins said. A steady stream of retirements in recent years has taxed the department’s ability to maintain adequate staffing levels.

Misbegotten musings

I love the moon. It was beautiful last night. It’s like Earth’s loyal Labrador retriever, following our planet on its jaunt through the universe.

I remember huddling with family members around snowy images on a black and white TV on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon. It was a thrilling achievement that offered inspiration during an otherwise traumatic year. My father was a physicist who knew many of the NASA scientists who worked to make the Apollo program possible, so it was especially cool to watch it with him.

Now, Vice President Mike Pence wants to revive the moon program, but make it more than a series of visits. He tweeted his vision Thursday, aligning with his message to NASA:

While our sights are once again set on our lunar neighbor, this time, we’re not content to leave behind only footprints, or even to leave at all. The time has come for the United States of America to establish a permanent presence around and on the Moon.”

I have questions. Will there be ICE on the moon? Will we have to ship bottled water up there, and does that mean Poland Spring will be tapping more watersheds in Maine to hydrate residents of the moon? Can the U.S. just claim the whole rock as our own by eminent domain or will we be wrestling with China and Russia for property rights? Will there have to be an asterisk for high jump and pole vault records set there?

Most importantly, what would be the lunar anthem? There are so many songs about the moon. It could be this. Or this. Or this. You could probably play lunar-themed songs for the entire duration of a trip to the moon without repeating any. But to Mr. Vice President — the Buzz Aldrin of 2018 American politics — here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by 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 leading 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.