By Alan Caron
Maine voters sent some loud and clear messages on Election Day this year.
First, they sent a clear message on the York County casino vote, which ought to send a message to every self-serving millionaire who thinks he can buy special privileges in Maine with a slick, deceptive campaign.
Then they sent Paul LePage another loud and clear message by making Maine the first state in the nation to expand Medicaid by popular vote.
That last vote wasn’t heard loud enough in Augusta, apparently, because Gov. LePage immediately threatened to derail Medicaid expansion when it got to the Legislature for funding.
Augusta has gotten into a bad habit lately of ignoring the will of the voters on bond issues and referenda, including the recent votes on ranked-choice voting and marijuana initiatives.
But messing with the vote on Medicaid expansion is another thing altogether, and it’s full of peril for Republicans, in particular. Something has shifted in the public’s attitudes on health care, but Republicans have spent so much time hyperventilating about Obamacare that they don’t seem to have picked it up.
Most Americans now support having more people insured. They’re coming to appreciate that when people don’t have health care, it actually costs the rest of us a fortune in shortened lives, lost productivity and costly crisis treatment in emergency rooms.
It wasn’t so long ago that the legislature wouldn’t dare overturn a vote of the people of Maine in a referendum. Well, at least not for the first five years or so. Now, it seems, most legislators take the vote of the people as advisory only. And Maine people are not amused.
This new trend began when LePage, early in his administration, decided that bond issues passed by the voters were only binding if he agreed with them. So he sat on bond issues, refusing to expend funds as required by the voters. And he got away with it, which then emboldened his Republican allies to treat citizen initiatives with the same indifference.
Now in his final months in office, LePage seems to veto most bills that come out of the Legislature, including five votes to expand Medicaid. LePage is the override king of Augusta, with more vetoes than any other Maine governor in history.
Here’s a little free advice for the governor and Republicans in the Legislature on how initiatives work: Citizens initiate them, by their signatures. Elected officials are free to share their views and opinions and, if they wish, to campaign for or against a referendum. Then citizens vote, and their will becomes law. Elected officials, including the governor, should then represent the voters, and, barring any major flaws in the bill, get out of the way.
LePage has, of course, opposed expanding Medicaid since it first became a possibility when the Affordable Care Act was passed. His arguments seem to fall into three categories:
First, we can’t afford to insure more Mainers, even though the federal government is picking up over 90 percent of the tab.
Second, voters aren’t smart enough to understand the issue and referendums are a bad way to govern, even though LePage himself just a few years back proposed as many as five referendums and promised to govern by the will of the people.
Third, Maine people are strongly opposed to the Affordable Care Act, which allows this expansion to occur, and LePage and company were simply standing up for them.
All of those arguments turned to dust on Election Day 2017 in a Medicaid expansion vote that wasn’t close and wasn’t confusing.
I would urge LePage and his allies in Augusta to step back and take a deep breath. Reflect on what Maine voters just said and the instructions they sent. Once the dust settles on this vote, calmer heads need to prevail.
The recent elections across the country, in which Democrats picked up seats everywhere, is a warning of what is coming for Republicans in 2018. It could be the beginning of a tidal wave of angry voters determined to “throw the bums out” over frustration and embarrassment with the president and Congress.
Republicans could limit the damage here, if they work at it, but ignoring the will of the voters is only going to make matters worse for them next November.
Alan Caron is president and CEO of Envision Maine and an independent candidate for governor. He lives in Freeport.