News Law and Policy

Maine’s GOP Governor Can’t Legally Stop Medicaid Expansion From Becoming Law

Nicole Knight

“When Gov. LePage and his allies tried to defeat Medicaid expansion at the ballot box, Mainers turned out in the ballot box to reject his lies. And we won."

Maine’s Republican governor wants to ignore the will of state voters who on Tuesday overwhelmingly favored Medicaid expansion in a ballot initiative, but Gov. Paul LePage lacks the constitutional power to stop the measure from becoming law.

Nearly 60 percent of state voters on Tuesday favored extending health coverage to an estimated 70,000 Mainers living at or below 138 percent of the poverty line, which is $16,643 for an individual or $22,412 for a family of two. The vote made Maine the 32nd state, plus the District of Columbia, to adopt Medicaid expansion made possible under the Affordable Care Act.

In an angry statement issued Wednesday, LePage said, “My administration will not implement Medicaid expansion until it has been fully funded by the legislature at the levels the [Maine Department of Health and Human Services] has calculated, and I will not support increasing taxes on Maine families, raiding the rainy day fund or reducing services to our elderly or disabled.”

A constitutional law expert suggested the GOP governor has no legal grounds to stop the popular Medicaid expansion.

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Dmitry Bam, associate dean for academic affairs who teaches constitutional law at the University of Maine School of Law, told Rewire that voter referendums automatically become law, even when the measure calls for new state spending.

“On paper, the [Maine] Constitution is clear that the Governor has no veto power when it comes to these popularly enacted laws,” Bam said in an email. “This is true even of laws requiring ‘expenditure in an amount in excess of available and unappropriated state funds,’ although those go into effect only after the legislature reconvenes.”

But the governor and legislature can thwart implementation of the expansion, he noted.

“In practice, however, any law that requires implementation either by the legislature, the governor, or both, hinges on what those branches do. And both branches have consistently sought to veto laws passed via direct democracy.”

Maine’s legislature is divided, with Republicans in control of the state senate and Democrats holding the house majority. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) told Bangor-based WVOM that he expected his fellow Republicans to oppose using tax increases or the state’s savings account to fund Medicaid expansion to families with low incomes.

Democrats, meanwhile, are prepping to resist GOP obstruction, as the Portland Press-Herald reported.

“When Gov. LePage and his allies tried to defeat Medicaid expansion at the ballot box, Mainers turned out in the ballot box to reject his lies. And we won,” Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson (D-Allagash) said. “And when, inevitably, Gov. LePage and Rep. Fredette conspire this year to overturn the voters’ will and take health care away from 80,000 Mainers, we will rise up to resist them. And we will win.”

Bam, the constitutional law expert, called politicians’ resistance to voter-passed laws a “common pattern in Maine.”

“Mainers go to the polls to express their will, and their representatives disagree with what the people want and do everything possible to counteract the will of the people,” he said. “We saw it last year with every single referendum that was passed by the people in November.”

Voters passed the Medicaid expansion in opposition to LePage, who five times vetoed legislation to expand Medicaid, saying it would financially “kill the state,” without offering evidence. LePage in his statement said credit agencies deemed the vote fiscally irresponsible, but didn’t release records from credit agencies demonstrating that. 

The federal government would pick up at least 90 percent of the cost of expanding Medicaid. The state would spend $27 million per year, reaching $70 million in the third year, according to the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review, as WLBZ reported. Supporters said projected savings would reduce the net increase in the cost of the program to Maine taxpayers to $13.6 million in year one, $31 million in year two, and $43 million in year three.

LePage, who won re-election in 2014 with less than half the vote, is one of the least popular governors in the nation, ranking near Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley before he resigned this year over a sex scandal.

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