November referendum: casino struck down, Medicaid expanded

On Tuesday Nov. 7, Maine citizens were faced with a referendum. Questions 1 and  2 elicited strong  emotions from voters, and ultimately engaged the community in series of polarizing questions.

Voters resoundingly sttruck down the proposal for a casino in York county, which drew criticism from corners of nearly all state paties. Question 2, on the other hand, was just passed with a small majority of Mainards voting to expand state-wide Medicaid benefits.

Question 1

The Echo reported in mid-September on global gambling developer Shawn Scott’s controversial attempt to capture the rights to build and operate Maine’s third casino in York County.

To summarize, Maine has a citizen government initiative that requires petitions which reach a set amount of signatures to be voted on in a statewide referendum. The pro-casino lobby initially canvassed towns, telling Mainers the casino would bring thousands of jobs, to collect the requisite amount of signatures.

The opposition to the casino plan was fierce, however, and included Governor Paul LePage, bipartisan senate alliances, and other local government officials across the state.

The opposition’s argument consisted of three primary points.

First, the petition the pro-casino lobby showed to Mainers used misleading language to ensure that, if the statewide referendum passed, only Scott and his company would have the right to build and operate the casino.

Second, state economists valued the rights to own and operate a casino in York County at over $200 million, and Scott has a history of obtaining the rights to operate gambling institutions in Maine only to immediately sell them for a profit.

Finally, the $8.8 million pro-casino campaign had been illegally financed. Investigations into the campaign’s finances revealed it had been bankrolled by a network of offshore firms, which led to a $500,000 fine, the largest for a campaign finance violation in state history.

The opposition believed that  Shawn Scott and his business partners intended to use Maine’s citizen initiative program to obtain the rights to build and operate a casino in York County for just $8.8 million in campaign costs, and then immediately sell these rights for a massive profit. Rather than create jobs, the new casino would hurt the current Maine gambling industry.

Voters seemed to agree, rejecting the casino proposal by a substantial margin.

The Portland Press Herald reported that Roy Lenardson, spokesman for A Bad Deal for Maine, a PAC which opposed the casino, called the vote “a case of democracy working.” He added, ‘voters got the information they needed and they made a good decision.’

The funding for programs to inform and sway referendum voters to vote no on question one was largely obtained from PACs involving the current Maine gambling industry.

Question 2

Question two was added to the ballot after Maine Equal Justice Partners collected over 61,000 signatures via the citizen initiative program. The measure to expand Medicaid as outlined by the Affordable Care Act passed by a 17.8 point margin.

Currently, full benefit MaineCare extends only to those earning up to 105 percent of the federal poverty line. This expansion will extend full benefit MaineCare to those adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, or $16,642 for an individual and $24,600 for a family of four.

According to the Maine Office of Program and Fiscal Review, this will expand coverage to 80,000 Mainers. Supporters state that the policy is intended to create jobs at rural hospitals and help the uninsured receive care.

Adrienne Carmack ’18, leader of Colby’s chapter of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said that she and her group were “incredibly excited that the voters decided to expand Medicaid to 70,000+ Mainers. Colby students canvassed both on and off campus to make sure folks were registered to vote and committed to vote Yes on two.”

Colby Planned Parenthood collaborated with Colby Democrats to shuttle voters of all affiliations to ballot sites. Colby Democrats also distributed flyers in dorms to notify students of the impending vote.

Carmack added that the Medicaid expansion furthers Colby Planned Parenthood’s “mission of providing education about and advocacy for inclusive and accessible sexual and reproductive health care.”

Maine is one of 19 states in which republican legislatures or governors have previously refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. LePage has vetoed expansion five times.

In the lead up to the vote, the LePage administration and state Republicans maintained their position that the proposed Medicaid expansion is fiscally irresponsible, pointing to former Governor Angus King’s 2002 expansion, which led to budget shortfalls and late Medicaid payments to hospitals.

The LePage administration has estimated the cost of the present expansion at close to $100 million per year, while the Office of Program and Fiscal Review estimates the cost at $54 million per year.

A legislative study found that Medicaid expansion would bring $1.2 billion in federal funds into Maine through 2019, but opponents of the expansion argue that these funds threaten to take the place of genuine solutions to poverty.

Former Maine politician and current Colby Professor of Economics Dr. Jim Libby explained the need for compromise at the state level. He said, “I’m here to train people to be independent. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with others, it means you have to have skills. So when it comes to the declaration of eligibility, it should not be arbitrary.”

Libby, who was a senator (R-York) during the King administration, also noted that budget shortfalls under King were likely not directly related to Medicaid expansion. He explained that programs like the business equipment tax rebate program, which effectively eliminated taxes on new in-state business investment, increased federal revenues and enabled “more spending across the board, lower tax rates, and rebuilding the State House as well as roads and bridges.” It could have been any other part of the budget that suffered rather than the hospital payments. We did a lot under King.”

Libby added that genuine solutions to poverty in Maine should start with education reform, saying the system must “capture the student at the youngest possible age” and perform gap analysis to apply standards set by private schools to public school systems.

Tuesday’s vote makes Maine the first state to settle the expansion question via referendum. The New York Times reported that, of the remaining 18, Utah and Idaho now have committees forming to place a Medicaid expansion question on next year’s ballot.

After the vote, LePage and state Republicans pledged to block any attempt to implement the approved measure, which requires the state to borrow money from outside financiers. But according to Maine’s constitution, any voter-approved measure that requires the state to spend money automatically becomes law in 45 days if money is not appropriated. Democrats also threatened to sue the governor if he refuses to implement the approved measure.

Carmack said, “Governor LePage’s comments that he will not follow through with the expansion are disturbing and disrespectful to his constituents. If he takes any action to block Medicaid expansion, you can be sure our group will be working with Planned Parenthood to fight back.”