AUGUSTA, Maine — One of the highest-profile and longest-debated issues of the legislative session was resolved Wednesday and Thursday with unanimous votes in both the House and Senate in favor of paying off past Medicaid debt to Maine’s 39 hospitals.

An under-the-hammer vote in the Senate on Wednesday night and a unanimous roll-call vote Thursday morning in the House have proven once and for all that paying off $490 million in past Medicaid debt — the majority of which will come from federal matching funds — is something everyone in the Legislature can agree on.

The bill calls for a renegotiation of the state liquor contract and using the revenues from that contract to pay off a revenue bond for the state’s share of the debt, which is about $183 million.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said debt to hospitals has been a black cloud hanging over state government since she became a legislator. She said a new “pay-as-you-go” law enacted in 2009 would help the state avoid falling into debt to hospitals again.

“Our hospitals are key to our communities,” she said in a floor speech Thursday morning. “Paying back the hospitals is not a partisan issue.”

Both Republicans and Democrats have long said that they support paying off the debt, but that hasn’t stopped both parties from using the issue for political leverage. Earlier this year, Gov. Paul LePage said he would issue $104 million in voter-approved bonds, which he had refused to authorize, as soon as the hospital debt was paid. More recently, Democrats tried to link the hospital bill with the expansion of Medicaid as prescribed in the federal Affordable Care Act.

The House of Representatives approved a new Medicaid expansion bill on Wednesday; the Senate has not yet taken action on that measure.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Democrats tried to link repaying the hospital debt with Medicaid expansion because the two issues are inextricably connected.

“As we make this final payment to make good on past debt to hospitals, we have also moved ahead with a bill that will reduce hospital debt and charity care in the future,” said Eves in a prepared statement. “We must address both sides of this coin. To do one without the other leaves the job half done.”

The hospital debt bill faces another procedural vote in the Senate before being sent to Gov. Paul LePage, who is eager to sign it into law.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.