Michaud joins Hobby Lobby overturn effort; Legislative Dems blast LePage; $820,000 en route for worker training

Reps. Mike Michaud (2012 BDN photo by Alex Barber) and Chellie Pingree (2013 BDN photo by Troy Bennett).

Reps. Mike Michaud (2012 BDN photo by Alex Barber) and Chellie Pingree (2013 BDN photo by Troy Bennett).

On Wednesday I reported that Rep. Chellie Pingree, is among numerous congressional Democrats who are sponsoring an attempt to reverse last week’s controversial and split Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud is now on board as a co-sponsor, too.

“This legislation prohibits for-profit corporations from denying women specific healthcare items or services otherwise required under federal law, and it’s an important way to neutralize the damage done by the Hobby Lobby ruling,” said Michaud in a written statement.

Michaud’s position comes as little surprise as he and other Democratic candidates have often highlighted their support for what they call women’s health rights. That stance earned Michaud, who is running for governor, the endorsement earlier this month of Planned Parenthood’s Maine Action Fund.

The court’s 5-4 decision on June 30 overturned a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires group health insurance plans offered by private, for-profit corporations to cover certain forms of contraception for women, namely emergency contraceptives such as the morning-after pill and intrauterine devices. The plaintiffs in the case, which included the Hobby Lobby chain of retail craft stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties, argued that their religious beliefs prevent them from providing health coverage for devices and methods that end human life after conception.

It’s doubtful that the measure will go anywhere given the balance of power on Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court’s ruling, which suggests that regardless of what may be genuine personal convictions among supporters of the bill, it’s an attempt to create campaign talking points in an election year. But it could cut both ways: those who oppose it will have to explain their positions on women’s health rights, which could appease anti-abortion voters, and those who support it will be sticking their necks out, again, on the divisive issues of abortion and their support of the Affordable Care Act.

A spokesman for independent Sen. Angus King said Thursday that King supports the bill.

King and Republican Sen. Susan Collins both told Mal Leary at Maine Public Broadcasting Network after the Supreme Court decision last week that they had concerns about the ripple effects of the decision.

King argued essentially that he doesn’t understand how corporations can have religions and that if the individuals who run them want other protections — such as protection of their personal assets in lawsuits against the corporations — they have to give up some other individual rights to get them.

Collins told MPBN that she feared the decision could have wider implications, such as allowing corporate owners whose religions are against blood transfusions to deny their employees insurance coverage for that procedure.

Politico reported Wednesday that Collins was among three moderate Senate Republicans who said they had not yet seen the bill.

UPDATE (8 a.m., Friday 7/11/14):

Collins said in a written statement that she is in support of the bill.

“Throughout my service in the Senate, I have been a strong proponent of family planning programs and measures to promote and protect women’s health,” said Collins. “I opposed Obamacare, in part because of the flawed employer mandate which has led to confusing results like the recent Supreme Court decision. The law should distinguish between for-profit corporations and not-for-profit entities with a religious affiliation. Therefore, I would support efforts to limit the religious exemption to not-for-profit entities.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Collins would not support the bill.

Legislative Democrats say they’re still awaiting meeting with LePage, which LePage spokeswoman calls a ‘political stunt’
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, left, and Gov. Paul LePage, right. BDN photos by Troy Bennett.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, left, and Gov. Paul LePage, right. BDN photos by Troy Bennett.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a press release Wednesday that Gov. Paul LePage is stonewalling their request to meet with him about the now-cancelled Alexander Group study of Maine’s welfare system, among other issues.

The Democratic leaders, who formally requested a meeting with the governor on June 4, said that LePage’s office rescheduled a meeting that was scheduled for today (July 10) to July 8, but on July 3, the governor rescheduled that meeting, too. According to the press release, the governor rescheduled that meeting for August 7.

Spokeswomen for Eves and Alfond said LePage was at the State House Thursday. the governor’s communications office said LePage was in meetings at the State House Thursday morning but was not there in the afternoon.

“It continues to be a pattern where Gov. LePage has no time for you unless you’re on his side of the aisle,” said Alfond. “It’s hard to believe that it takes two months to clear his schedule for us to talk about the state’s business.”

Eves and Alfond, among others, have long advocated for the state to cancel the contract — which LePage did on June 13 after the BDN revealed that portions of the study had been plagiarized in May – and demanded a refund of the more than $500,000 that was paid to the consultant for initial phases of the study. Despite LePage’s decisive action on the contract — though some argued it was too little too late, and on a contract that never should have been signed in the first place — the governor continues to face criticism for his handling of it.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the Democrats were attempting to “distract the media from their failures with a news release about a dead issue.”

“How about Democrats come back to Augusta to talk about real issues affecting Mainers, such as creating jobs, fighting drug crime, reforming welfare and funding our nursing homes?” wrote Bennett in an email to the BDN. Bennett’s comments referred to criticisms that LePage has barraged the Legislature with for months, but which leave out part of the story.

LePage has often bristled at changes lawmakers tried to make to a bill he proposed that would have hired more judges, drug agents and prosecutors to fight drug crimes. The Legislature passed LePage’s bill after reducing its cost from $3.2 million recommended by LePage to about $2.25 million by reducing the number of new positions and calling for more drug abuse treatment measures. Lawmakers did not allocate funding for the bill at the end of the session because they said the money wasn’t available, which angered the governor because he said their priorities were misplaced. Then, as the Legislature was preparing to reconvene to vote on 48 late-session LePage vetoes, the governor proposed using money from the state’s unclaimed property fund to pay for the bill. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee voted unanimously against the bill late on veto day after LePage threatened to veto a compromise they were about to forward to the full Legislature for passage.

LePage has also seized on trying to find more funding for Maine’s nursing homes, but not until after lawmakers established permanent increased funding for nursing homes in a supplemental budget bill LePage then vetoed for other reasons. That veto was overridden. LePage later proposed using money from tobacco settlement funds to provide even more nursing home funding, but like the drug bill, the Appropriations Committee scuttled LePage’s proposal late on May 1 after he threatened to veto their compromise.

In short, LePage denied himself at least partial victories with his refusal to accept compromise.

LePage has called informally on the Legislature to return to Augusta for a special session to revisit these two issues but Democrats who hold majorities in the House and Senate have refused.

Maine one of eight states to receive federal grant for worker training

The state learned this week that it has won a nearly $820,000 Workforce Investment Act Incentive Grant, which according to LePage is the first time in 12 years Maine has received the money. LePage attributed receipt of the grant to a collaboration between himself, the State Workforce Investment Board and the departments of labor and education in an effort to funnel more training resources to sectors where where worker shortages are most prevalent. Eight states qualified for grants this year.

“I am pleased to see Maine among the top eight programs in the country,” said LePage in a written statement. “All of the qualifying states are led by Republican governors, which I believe illustrates our commitment to the reform and improvement of programs that put people to work. I commend the staff of the departments of labor and education and our partners in the field who have made this possible.”

The money, which will be distributed to sub-grantees on a competitive basis, will be used to fund industry partnerships and adult literacy.

 

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.