February 27, 2011

LePage takes federal wish list to D.C.

By Jonathan Riskind jriskind@mainetoday.com
Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- From how Maine runs its Medicaid program to regulations covering how Mainers farm, fish and use forests, Gov. Paul LePage said Saturday that he is armed with a simple federal wish list during the National Governors Association winter meeting here.

LePage wants more flexibility from the federal government to determine who is eligible for Medicaid, or MaineCare, and he wants the federal government to give the state more freedom to decide how to go about cutting trees, planting crops and harvesting ocean waters.

"Let us run our states with the resources we have," LePage said. "Give us the flexibility to run our states and get out of the way."

LePage spoke Saturday during the NGA's opening news conference, appearing on stage with about a dozen governors, as well as in an interview with MaineToday Media and in other interviews with several national publications and outlets.

This is LePage's first NGA meeting as a sitting governor, though he also attended an NGA session in Colorado in December, shortly after his election. The governor said he hopes to "listen and learn" from the work that other governors and states are doing across the country.

The three-day meeting includes a black-tie dinner Sunday at the White House, as well as a Monday session at the White House during which the governors will meet privately with President Barack Obama.

While some governors are asking the federal government not to cut too deeply as Congress and the White House negotiate a massive spending bill for the rest of the federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30, LePage said it is important for the federal government to reduce the federal deficit and debt.

He said he doesn't want to see a standoff between House Republicans and Senate Democrats and the White House result in a government shutdown next month, but added, "You can't spend what you don't have. If you are going to send me money and you are using a credit card to do it, where is it going to stop?"

He said that, of course, more money from the federal government would be great as Maine struggles to pay for Medicaid, education and other programs even as the state struggles with a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall; but LePage said he also worries about the "fine print" that comes with federal funding, and prefers added flexibility to more federal dollars.

"Keep your money; give us flexibility," LePage said.

LePage wants to restrict the eligibility for MaineCare to those at 133 percent of the federal poverty level and below, from the current Maine standard of 200 percent of poverty.

The 133 percent standard is all that is mandated by the new federal health care law, but the law also prevents states from dropping their own current standards. Maine could save tens of millions of dollars a year by restricting eligibility for MaineCare when it comes to childless adults, LePage said.

Critics of that proposal say veterans and homeless men would be among those harmed and say it would be hospitals and other health care providers that would wind up assuming increased costs.

LePage said that, "We need the flexibility to manage Medicaid so it conforms to the fed guidelines you (the federal government) have provided, and we are not allowed to do that."

Meanwhile, environmental advocates have bristled at LePage's proposed overhaul of state environmental regulations. LePage says he favors strong rules protecting the environment, but wants government to ease burdensome and time-consuming regulatory processes that he believes get in the way of businesses creating jobs in Maine.

LePage has been named to the NGA's natural resources committee. He said it wasn't at his request, but it is an appointment noted by some Maine environmental advocates.

"As Gov. LePage joins the (NGA) Committee on Natural Resources, we hope he'll take time to study the principles they have already established," said Kate Dempsey, senior policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy in Maine. "These emphasize collaboration over polarization and a sincere understanding of the role of scientific consensus."

LePage said Saturday he stands by his recent comment, criticized by a number of environmentalists, that there is a lack of scientific evidence proving the danger of the chemical additive bisphenol-A, or BPA.

The call for a BPA ban "is an emotional cry for regulations where it's not needed," LePage said. "The science says that there is nothing wrong with it."

Jonathan Riskind -- 791-6280



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