Advocates have next move in legal chess match with LePage over Medicaid expansion

Good morning from Augusta, where Gov. Paul LePage’s move to submit a Medicaid expansion plan to the federal government while asking the feds to reject it has advocates pondering their next move in light of an ongoing case on the issue in Maine courts.

The Republican governor is a staunch opponent of expansion, which passed easily in a 2017 referendum. However, his Department of Health and Human Services was forced by Maine’s high court to file a simple expansion plan with President Donald Trump’s administration.

That decision by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court dodged core constitutional questions, such as whether the state is forced to actually expand coverage without a dedicated appropriation from the Legislature. Those are still part of the case, which now sits in a lower court.

The next move in the battle over expansion will likely come through federal and court decisions. Pro-expansion advocates argue that the Trump administration could accept the application, but they have problems with the effective date that the LePage administration put forward.

Could the federal government just accept the application? In an Aug. 31 letter to federal officials, Bethany Hamm, the acting DHHS commissioner, said the plan’s filing was mandated by the high court’s decision and filed the plan — which would cover an estimated 70,000 Mainers — with the federal government.

However, LePage sent a cover letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that was copied to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence that urged the federal government to reject it in part because the lack of an appropriation means that there’s no assurance that Maine could pay its share of the costs.

A spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services told The Associated Press in April that it could ask how Maine plans to fund its expansion share as part of the federal review. But Charlie Dingman, an attorney for the progressive Maine Equal Justice Partners, said he didn’t think the federal government “has any reason” to deny the application, which he said was outside of its discretion.

“We believe it should be approved anyway, notwithstanding the rhetoric in the governor’s letter,” he said. “But at the same time, we see the governor’s letter as clearly an expression of bad faith and clearly a less-than-full compliance with the court’s order.”

Advocates may meet with a lower-court judge to discuss the interfaces with the ongoing case today. Even though he thinks it could be approved, Dingman said that advocates have other issues with the state plan. In it, the LePage administration put the effective date of expanded coverage at Sept. 4 — two months later than the July 2 deadline for coverage in the state law.

Dingman said lawyers in the pending case will meet with Maine Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy, the judge tasked with deciding it, as early as Wednesday to argue that the move is not in compliance with the law earlier rulings. Stay tuned for developments.

Hearings begin on 18 LePage nominees

Lawmakers will consider a slew of recent nominees, including those to turnpike and education boards and judicial positions. Legislative committees will be busy from today through Friday holding hearings on 18 people who could be some of LePage’s final nominees to state boards and judicial positions before the governor leaves office in early 2019. Some of the more major moves include his nominees to the Maine Turnpike Authority, the University of Maine System board of trustees and a District Court nomination.

LePage wants to replace former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, who chairs the Maine Turnpike Authority, with one of the governor’s former advisers, Jonathan Nass, who will soon transition from his job as deputy transportation commissioner to become the CEO of the Maine Port Authority. Nass’ hearing is today.

The governor also wants to make four new appointments to the university board, including Peter DelGreco, the CEO of Maine and Co., which helps businesses relocate to or expand in Maine, and former state Sen. Nichi Farnham of Bangor. Those hearings will happen on Thursday and Friday. John W. Martin of Skowhegan is up for a District Court judge slot and will have a Wednesday committee hearing.

Signature gathering to begin for female genital mutilation ban campaign

The Maine Republican Party is assisting in the effort to put the issue on the ballot next year. Conservatives looking to ban female genital mutilation — a federally illegal cultural practice and human rights violation that has affected 200 million women in African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries — in Maine through a June 2019 referendum told supporters in a Tuesday email that petitions for signature-gathering are now available.

The political committee behind the effort must gather more than 61,000 signatures from registered Maine voters to get their question on the ballot. The Maine Republican Party is lending support to it, making petitions available at its Augusta and Bangor offices.

Dueling proposals to ban the practice under state law died in a partisan legislative battle earlier this year. It’s unclear how prevalent female genital mutilation is in Maine. A recent survey of Maine immigrants from African and Middle Eastern countries said 71 percent found it unacceptable.

Reading list

  • Partisan posturing and audience eruptions marked the first day of confirmation hearings for the latest Supreme Court nominee. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee complained that Republicans had denied them access to reams of background information on nominee Brett Kavanaugh, while their Republican colleagues sang his praises as a jurist, human being and youth basketball coach. Meanwhile, people in the audience regularly shouted their disdain for Kavanaugh, who made his opening remarks seven hours after the hearing began. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are the only two Republicans withholding support for Kavanaugh right now, though neither has said she would vote against him. Mostly, it was just another day of rancor and deep dysfunction in the nation’s capital. Click here to watch today’s Judiciary Committee hearing.
  • Despite the “superfood” trend, Maine blueberries seem to be falling out of favor. The Associated Press reports that harvesters of the signature Maine crop are seeing steep declines in demand. Harvesters collected a little less than 68 million pounds of wild blueberries in the state in 2017, which was the lowest total since 2005 and more than 33 million pounds less than 2016. Last year’s price of 26 cents per pound to farmers was also the lowest since 1985, and was more in line with the kind of prices farmers saw in the early 1970s than in the modern era.

Bucky or Stormy?

Decisions. Decisions. Tonight, Maine will play host to two notable visitors with nicknames that end in Y.

Stormy Daniels, the adult film star and former Trump confidante, will put on a show at PT Showclub in Portland tonight and Thursday. Details about what Stormy, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, will do on stage remain a veiled mystery. Speculation in the newsroom is that she will offer provocative readings of patriotic poetry — in essence, a modern adult stage version of what N.C. Wyeth did for Brander Matthews“Poems of American Patriotism” compilation in 1922.

Meanwhile, the other celebrity guest whose nickname ends in Y will be in Waterville. Former New York Yankees shortstop and archvillain Bucky Dent, whose real name is Bucky F***ing Dent — I mean Russell Earl Dent — will appear this evening with former Red Sox hurler Mike Torrez. The pair will be at the Proper Pig from 5 to 8 p.m.

Again, we’re not sure what the agenda is other than eating, but it will probably involve Torrez lobbing lollipops to Dent, who will simultaneously knock them over a wall and use them to break the hearts of Red Sox fans. Maybe Torrez, who played for the Yankees before signing with Boston, will finally admit that he was a plant, part of a massive conspiracy to deprive the Red Sox of their well-deserved pennant and cover up the American League’s deep-set culture of pro-pinstriped bias.

In the one-game 1978 playoff between the Red Sox and the Yankees, Torrez served up a seventh-inning meatball that Dent lofted for a three-run, pop fly homer over the Green Monster to put the Yankees ahead for good in what would become a horrible, 5-4 diamond debacle. By all accounts, Dent is a really nice guy, but some of us have not forgiven him. And never will. But it would probably be bad form to boo him during a friendly visit to central Maine.

Anyway, Mainers have a rare chance to see Bucky or Stormy tonight. Someone with a fast car, ambition — and too much free time — could probably make it a double header, as Stormy’s show starts an hour after Bucky’s visit is scheduled to end.

As for me? I’ll be home because the Y nickname that best fits me after work is … Sleepy. Or Grumpy. Here’s 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.