AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) - Governor LePage stirred up both political parties in Augusta today, saying on a radio talk show -- and again in an interview with NEWS CENTER -- that he will veto every bill until the Legislature passes his plan to pay off the state's hospital debt.
The state owes hospitals $484 million, a debt that has accumulated over a number of years. Legislators changed the law in 2009 to eliminate the problem going forward, but the debt is still there. The Governor wants to sell bonds to borrow the money to pay off the state's share - roughly $186 million-- so the federal government will pay off the balance. The Governor proposes to pay back those bonds with profits from a new wholesale liquor contract. He has also said that once hospitals are p[aid, he will finally sign off on issuing about $100 million in other bonds for construction projects, which both political parties say will create some much-needed construction jobs.
Democrats have been un-enthusiastic about the plan, and Republicans have accused them of deliberately delaying the bill. Last week, democrats scheduled a public hearing on the hospital proposal for March 15. That led to the Governor's statement today, apparently intended to increase pressure on lawmakers to pass his plan. Gov. LePage told News Center that if the Legislature can quickly pass an emergency bil to let bars open early on St. Patrick's Day, it should pass his hospital bill just as quickly. He said he would veto any other bills that come to his desk before the hospital bill is passed.
Democratic leaders called it a threat to shut down government, and said that wasn't how the process should work. Democrats say they, too, want to pay off the hospital debt, but believe that proposal needs to take its place along-side other parts of the budget, and decide if paying the hospitals is the best use of money from the liquor contract.
Late this afternoon, the Governor appeared to back off from his earlier statements, telling GOP leaders he will not veto bills that have "significant bipartisan support" or create jobs.
Democrats, meanwhile, are also raising questions about the proposed new liquor contract. The Director of the state's Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery said today the LePage Administration's proposal would still contract the wholesale business to a private company, as it does now.