AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- The Maine House gave final approval on Thursday to a plan to renegotiate the state's liquor contract to pay its hospitals years-old debt totaling hundreds of millions of dollars for Medicaid services — one of Gov. Paul LePage's top priorities.
Lawmakers unanimously approved the bill, which no longer is tied to a proposal to expand Medicaid to 70,000 Mainers. It now goes to the Senate, which gave it initial approval Wednesday night and is expected to give final approval. Its passage would be a major victory for the Republican governor working with Democratic majorities in both chambers.
"Our hospitals are key to the health of our community, and this final payment makes good on the lifesaving work that our nurses and doctors do for Maine families," said Rep. Margaret Rotundo, a Lewiston Democrat. "Paying back the hospitals is not a partisan issue, and I strongly suspect that all of us are very pleased to be able to vote affirmatively in support of our hospitals today," she said.
Under the proposal, the state's share of $183.5 million would be covered using bonds, which would be paid off with anticipated revenues from a restructured, 10-year liquor contract. That would trigger a federal match to complete the payment.
LePage, campaigned on the issue when he ran for governor in 2010 and has made repayment a top priority since taking office, but vetoed a previous version because it was tied to a proposal to expand Medicaid under the federal health care overhaul.
Democrats originally linked the two bills, saying that accepting federal funding to cover more Maine families would help reduce hospital charity care costs, which are passed on to all Maine taxpayers.
But LePage said Democrats were trying to force "welfare expansion" on Maine residents and re-introduced the hospital bill on its own.
Democrats are now working to get the Medicaid expansion proposal through the Legislature separately.
Lawmakers on Thursday emphasized the bipartisan support behind the liquor contract proposal, which includes the renegotiation of the prices of some brands to compete more aggressively with New Hampshire liquor sales.
"It's really good to see the hard work of both side of the aisle working together on this bill bringing this forward and bringing really good, strong support to this bill in a bipartisan fashion," House Republican Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport said before the Thursday vote.
Lawmakers are seeking to get the bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Patrick Flood of Winthrop, through the Legislature before the session ends Wednesday. Democrats say the state will save $5 million if it completes the payments before Oct. 1.
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