House OKs $50 million tobacco bill
AUGUSTA - The House of Representatives gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill that would spend more than $50 million in tobacco-settlement money on a range of social services, including health insurance for more than 10,000 uninsured working adults a
The 78-69 vote fell almost strictly along party lines, with all but one Democrat supporting the bill and all but one Republican voting against it. The Republicans are pushing a competing bill that would spend slightly less money overall, including $18 million to shrink a shortfall in the Medicaid budget.
The House is expected to consider the bill again today for a required but probably uneventful second vote before sending it to the Senate. The partisan split in the House was not surprising because it followed a straight party-line split on the Legislature's Appropriations Committee.
At issue is money Maine is getting from the tobacco companies as part of a settlement of a multi-state lawsuit against the industry for Medicaid costs stemming from tobacco-related illnesses. The state has received and allocated more than $18 million so far, to be spent in the fiscal year starting July 1.
But more money has come in since then and it continues to pour in. The two bills now under review propose different ways of spending it.
All told, the state is getting more than $62 million this fiscal year, including the money it has received already. The payment plan calls for another $48 million next year, almost $58 million the year after that and close to $59 million the year after that.
The payments are supposed to continue forever, but lawmakers disagree on the likelihood of that. Democrats often argue that the money will flow for many years, if not forever. Some Republicans counter that long-term payments are not a sure thing.
The bill backed by the House does not include the Medicaid bailout, which Democratic lawmakers want to pay for out of the state's general fund. Both bills would spend millions of dollars to help smokers quit and to discourage children from picking up the habit, but the Democratic bill backed by the House earmarks more money for that purpose than the GOP bill does.
Tuesday's vote was viewed by some as a setback for independent Gov. Angus King, who had submitted a tobacco-settlement bill of his own. It included the Medicaid bailout rejected by the House and excluded the insurance coverage for the poor embraced by the House.
Still, King's spokesman was somewhat muted in his criticism of the bill backed by the House.
Dennis Bailey said King is concerned that the bill does not include money to help cover the Medicaid shortfall, but Bailey also said King is studying the competing bills and reserving final judgment on them.
"He's going to take a look at both of them," Bailey said, but he hinted that King questions the wisdom of the Democrats' commitment to using tobacco money to expand various social services. "Before we start expanding programs, we ought to pay for the ones we've got," Bailey said.
The Democratic bill includes $17.5 million to fight smoking and promote healthy diets and exercise, more than the Republican bill seeks for anti-smoking efforts. The Democratic bill sets aside $27 million in savings for future spending on health programs, which is a bit less than the $32 million that the Republicans would set aside for the same purpose.
Both bills include millions of dollars to expand subsidized prescription coverage for the elderly and disabled, but the differences between the two bills outnumber the similarities.
The Democrats would spend more than the Republicans to fight drug and alcohol abuse, and the Democratic bill would use some of the new tobacco money for dental care, family planning, child care and home visits to help the parents of newborns.
In addition to the Medicaid bailout, other spending proposals that are unique to the Republican bill include $10 million for biomedical research and $4 million in incentives for doctors to help them fight smoking among pregnant women and other Mainers.
The House vote followed close to 90 minutes of debate, much of it focused on Democratic support for and Republican opposition to providing insurance coverage for more than 10,000 poor adults.
Democrats said the state has a golden opportunity, courtesy of the tobacco companies, to insure more poor Mainers. Republicans said that is a risky proposition because it represents a long-term obligation that the state may not be able to afford years from now.
"How we act today will set the stage for how that money will be spent in the future," said Rep. Elizabeth Townsend, D-Portland, a supporter of the Democratic bill. "Imagine 10,000 Maine citizens being able to achieve primary care" instead of ignoring their medical needs until they end up in the emergency room, Townsend told the House.
"We need to do what we can to provide health insurance for those parents who need it" but cannot afford it, said Rep. Elaine Fuller, D-Manchester.
"We cannot sustain the funding that is found in this (Democratic) bill," said Rep. Joseph Bruno, R-Raymond, a supporter of the Republican bill. "We agree that there needs to be more done" in providing various services to Maine people, he said. "What we don't agree on is starting new programs" that the state will not be able to afford in the long run.
"If we adopt the majority report, we're going to adopt programs that are not paid for in the future," said Rep. Richard Nass, R-Acton. "The majority report is a prescription for failure."