AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- Backtracking on an earlier veto promise, Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday he will sign a bill to allow Maine bars to serve alcohol a few hours earlier when St. Patrick's Day falls on a Sunday, as it does this weekend.
The governor two weeks earlier had vowed to veto any bill that reaches his desk — even if he submitted it — before his proposal to pay a state Medicaid debt of $484 million to hospitals is passed. But he said Thursday he would sign the St. Patrick's Day bill as a friendly gesture to Democrats, who moved closer this week toward agreement with the Republican governor on how to address the hospital debt.
Current state law prohibits the sale of liquor on Sunday between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. A bill introduced by Democratic Rep. Barry Hobbins of Saco with support of bar owners would roll back the earliest opening to 6 a.m. Some Maine businesses that will cater to St. Patrick's Day revelers, especially in the Portland area, warned they'd lose thousands of dollars of business without the new law.
The Republican governor said that after a productive meeting with Hobbins the previous day, he decided he would sign the bill.
"Mainers know that I am a man of my word. But I am always open to reasonable suggestions," LePage said. "I'm pleased to sign this bill as a gesture of goodwill and as a supporter of Maine's fine establishments that wish to open earlier on St. Patrick's Day.
"With that said, now is the time for the Legislature to move forward in paying our bills to the hospitals. The sooner the Legislature passes this bill, the sooner we can put Mainers back to work," LePage said in a statement.
Given the overwhelming majorities by which lawmakers passed Hobbins' bill, it's likely the Legislature could have overridden a gubernatorial gubernatorial veto anyway. The House tally of 105-32 and Senate's vote of 29-6 were above the two-thirds threshold needed to override a veto and also make the bill take effect immediately. Thursday was the last day the Legislature could have voted on the measure, which also includes a similar exception for New Year's Day.
"I am glad that lawmakers saw this bill for what it is — a good bill boosting bartenders, wait staff and small businesses," said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. "I heard from dozens and dozens of workers in my district telling me about hundreds of dollars in lost wages and income if this bill had been rejected."
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport said his caucus wasn't thrilled to vote for the St. Patrick's Day bill, but the Democrats' movement on the hospital debt made their votes "much more palatable."
Earlier this week, majority Democrats announced a major change in direction on legislation to pay the hospital debt. Long opposed to tying revenues from Maine's $400 million liquor business to paying off the debt, Democrats changed course and said they would use liquor revenues for a one-time payoff, two provisions on which the governor insisted.
Democrats remain troubled by a LePage plan to pay the hospitals with money from bonds, which would be paid off with the future liquor revenues. Of the $484 million owed, $186 million in state funds would be matched by $298 million in federal funding.
For his part, LePage for the first time this week opened the door a crack to accepting federal funding for an expansion of Medicaid under the national health care law.