- Associated Press - Friday, April 11, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - The Maine Legislature failed on Friday in its third attempt to overturn Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill that would expand Medicaid coverage to 70,000 low-income residents under the federal health care law - an issue that’s certain to play prominently in this year’s governor’s race.

The 22-13 vote in the Senate was two votes shy of the two-thirds support it needed to override LePage’s rejection of the bill that also would have privatized the state’s Medicaid program through managed care.

The failure of the proposal in the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, is a big win for the Republican governor whose agenda was dealt a significant blow by lawmakers this session, including an effort to overhaul the state’s welfare programs.

The federal government offered to pay the entire cost of the expansion under President Barack Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act for the first three years, after which the state would pick up a portion of the costs. Under the bill, Maine would’ve withdrawn from the program at that time and the Legislature would have to approve it again.

But LePage and Republican lawmakers have said it’s unreasonable to believe that the Legislature will choose to take away people’s coverage once it’s been provided. It’s shortsighted to believe that the federal government will keep its promise and that taxpayers will ultimately be left footing the bill, they said.

“Our resources are extremely strapped and we only have the ability to do certain things,” said Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport. “This is beyond our ability to pay.”

On Friday, LePage echoed Republican lawmakers’ argument that many of those who’d qualify for the expansion can get subsidies to buy private coverage on the federal marketplace for as little as a few dollars a month. LePage said he’s pleased “the Senate chose fiscal responsibility instead of spending millions of Maine taxpayer dollars to expand welfare to able-bodied adults who have other options for virtually free health care.”

But an estimated 24,000 Mainers who would’ve received Medicaid under the expansion won’t qualify for subsidies, leaving affordable health care out of reach, Democrats say.

Democrats criticized Republicans for their continued opposition despite the inclusion of several provisions they wanted, including an attempt to reduce the waitlist for Medicaid services and two new fraud investigators for the attorney general’s office.

The state would’ve also hired private companies to run its Medicaid program in an effort to provide more stability and predictability in its growing Medicaid budget.

“We were offered many excuses for the opponents of why they wouldn’t vote in favor of this sensible legislation to accept federal funds, but as I see it, the barriers have now been addressed,” said Democratic Sen. Margaret Craven of Lewiston.

LePage’s opposition to the expansion will become a key aspect of the upcoming governor’s race. After the vote on Friday, protesters in the Senate shouted, “We will remember in November.”

And the governor’s two political opponents, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent candidate Eliot Cutler, blasted the governor for vetoing the bill earlier this week.

LePage “has elevated his tough-guy image over the public interest,” Cutler said in a statement. “Politicians overuse the word ‘shame,’ but this time it really fits.”

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Follow Alanna Durkin on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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