Democrats emerge from budget hearings firing back at LePage

Good morning from Augusta, where things continue to be slow this week with the Maine Legislature mostly out of town on a February break.

But after the Appropriations Committee began four days of hearings on the wide-ranging Maine Department of Health and Human Services portion of Gov. Paul LePage’s two-year budget proposal on Tuesday, Democrats began to fire back in specific terms.

Tuesday’s hearing was devoted to a number of items, including changes to eliminate MaineCare eligibility for 18,000 “able-bodied” parents earning more than 40 percent of the federal poverty level and lowering reimbursement rates to critical access hospitals. Those two changes make up more than $37 million of $140 million in proposed cuts relative to DHHS’ baseline budget.

Democrats have been decrying the budget all along, but most criticism has so far been relatively vague with hearings on LePage’s budget in an early phase. But it has been clear since January that the Legislature is going to have to craft a compromise budget, as it has with the last two budgets passed over the governor’s veto.

LePage has pitched his budget as a way to prioritize spending on Mainers who are elderly and disabled, but Democrats came out of the first day of hearings laying down specific battle lines.

In a statement, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said her party isn’t signing off on a plan on critical access hospitals that “would have such negative consequences in rural Maine” and Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the co-chairman of the budget committee, said they will “continue to fight for policies that make sure Mainers have more affordable, better quality health care, not less.”

It’s no surprise, but a sign that we may see more concrete budget proposals from Democrats soon. Any deal will hinge on how much legislative Republicans can moderate these two proposals to win a two-thirds majority with LePage’s veto pen looming. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • A Republican lawmaker has called for a House panel to investigate an Orono lawmaker for a conflict of interest. LePage called for Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, to resign last week over a $9,000 job with the 2016 campaign that passed Question 2, a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 to fund education. He now co-chairs the Legislature’s Taxation Committee. While Maine’s conflict of interest statutes are quite broad and the state’s ethics commission has said he likely doesn’t have to recuse himself from tax or education work, Republicans are continuing to press the issue. Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, issued a letter on Tuesday asking Gideon to convene the House Ethics Committee to consider a possible violation.
  • It’s February. We may already have a Lewiston mayoral race. Progressive activist Ben Chin, who lost to Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald in 2015, is making an “announcement” tomorrow. He hasn’t said what it’s about, but Macdonald is term-limited. If Chin indeed runs again, he may already have company: Former City Council President Mark Cayer, a Lewiston native and former Rumford police lieutenant, told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday that he plans to run. The independent called himself “fairly conservative” on fiscal issues and open-minded on social issues, saying “I think sometimes the people who are actually paying the bills are forgotten and I think we need to get the focus back on them.”
  • Chellie Pingree is hosting roundtables on the immigrant workforce. Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree will host a roundtable discussion today in Portland in an effort to preempt President Donald Trump’s executive order regarding refugees and travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Pingree will first tour American Roots, a manufacturing facility at 17 Westfield St. in Portland, then conduct the roundtable from noon to 1 p.m. today. The roundtable will include owners of businesses that employ new Mainers as well as some employees.
  • Supporters of President Donald Trump are planning a rally. A group called March 4 Trump wants to counter the crowds of people who have protested the president since his inauguration with a March 4 rally in Augusta. March 4 Trump has organized several marches across the country for that day, according to a news release. The march in Augusta begins at noon at the Capitol Shopping Plaza at 150 Western Ave. and concludes on the steps of the State House. — Michael Shepherd and Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Michael Shepherd can eat a pile of meatloaf

A bunch of Bangor Daily News employees from southern Maine went to Bangor on Tuesday for a staff meeting and as is tradition on these things, we hit downtown Queen City for lunch. We went to Friar’s Bakehouse, which I recommend unconditionally (bring cash and don’t show your cellphone inside).

My colleague Mike Shepherd is about a foot taller than most people and has a longer stride, which put him at the Bakehouse sooner than our editor, Robert Long and me. There’s a limited menu and Mike ordered the last available meatloaf sandwich. We didn’t try to conceal our grumbling and decided to settle for grilled ham and cheese. It turned out to be a wise decision.

When the sandwiches came out, there was enough meatloaf on Mike’s for a hearty dinner for my whole family. There was a week’s worth of ham sandwiches on mine and Robert’s. All we could do when they were put in front of us was laugh and start eating.

Mike’s got a good appetite but slowed about three-quarters of the way in. I haven’t asked him today about any after-effects but he’s writing part of the Daily Brief so I guess he survived. Here’s his soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Update: All is regular. Here’s another soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

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.