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Governor LePage of Maine vows vetoes over Medicaid debt

AUGUSTA, Maine — Governor Paul LePage threatened Friday to veto any bill that is sent to him before lawmakers pass legislation to repay $484 million in Medicaid debts owed to Maine hospitals.

‘‘Frankly, it’s not a threat; it’s a promise,’’ the Republican governor said on radio station WVOM Radio’s morning call-in program. His move unleashed a new flood of charges and countercharges between the parties of stalling and Washington-style politics.

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The Republican governor has advanced a plan to settle the debt to hospitals for past Medicaid services, with ­income from future liquor sales. Maine’s 10-year private contract for liquor sales, which expires in mid-2014, has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, LePage says. His plan to restructure the liquor sale contract would bring new revenue to the state as it comes in, he says.

LePage’s plan would raise $186 million for the hospital debt dating to 2009, which would trigger $298 million in federal funding to complete the repayment. He envisions covering the debt right off with money from bonds, which would be paid off with the future liquor revenues.

‘‘I am tired of playing the game of politics at the expense of Maine people. Now somebody’s got to step up and do something, and the price of admission right now is you pay the hospitals, and we’ll sit down and go to work on everything else,’’ LePage said on the radio station’s George Hale-Ric Tyler program.

The governor stressed that he will not just hold off on signing legislation, but also will veto, even if he introduced it, any bill until legislation to address the hospital debt is passed. He maintains it represents $700 million in jobs and other spinoff benefits to the state’s economy.

Democrats, who have acknowledged the hospital debt, denounced LePage’s comments and those of legislative leaders who have said that a state government shutdown is possible if state fiscal issues can’t be settled.

‘‘This is not a dictatorship,’’ said assistant Senate majority leader Troy Jackson of ­Allagash. ‘‘I’m not going to be threatened by this.’’

Senate majority leader Seth Goodall, Democrat of ­Richmond, said LePage’s threat ‘‘is not governing. . . . It is the type of political gamesmanship that doesn’t belong here in Maine. I suspect the people of Maine want leaders, not schoolyard bullies. We have serious challenges facing our economy and we should be focused on finding solutions, not making threats.’’

Goodall has also sponsored a bill addressing the state’s ­liquor sales, which requires the state to continue the privatization of its wholesale liquor operations beyond the current contract and establishes new criteria that a successful bidder must meet.

LePage spokeswoman ­Adrienne Bennett dismissed Goodall’s bill as ‘‘a stalling tactic’’ that does not pay the hospital debt.

Democrats also say $3.7 billion has been paid back to the hospitals in the past decade. Between 2005 and 2010, the combined state and federal settlement payments to hospitals totaled $742 million, Democrats say, citing figures from the Legislature’s non­partisan fiscal office.

‘‘The hospital debt is a priority for the Democrats, as it is for the governor,’’ Goodall said.

Asserting that LePage’s payoff plan is flawed, Democrats have said its parts will be reviewed in the context of the whole state budget. LePage’s proposed $6.3 billion budget for two years starting July 1 is under review by the Legislature.

Republican legislative leaders refused to say whether they would stand behind ­LePage’s veto threat, but said they understood his motivation and that the legislative process would move forward.

‘‘The governor’s extremely frustrated with the Democrats’ delaying tactics,’’ said Michael Thibodeau of Winterport, the Senate GOP leader.

Republicans said the hospitals must be paid as soon as possible because the federal match rate for the Medicaid is decreasing.

Neither party’s leaders could identify any bills of crucial importance that are in danger of vetoes, although they said several are advancing toward final approval in the next week or so.

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