Gov. Paul LePage has determined certain Maine residents in need are priorities when it comes to awarding state assistance and that others clearly are not.
Accordingly, he and his administration have made budgeting for the state’s range of public assistance and human services programs a zero-sum game: If “able-bodied” adults receive state-funded medical coverage, it comes at the expense of elderly residents in nursing homes. Small amounts of General Assistance for noncitizens in immigration limbo with few resources and no legal ability to work come at the expense of housing supports for those with developmental disabilities, under those zero-sum calculations.
Separate courts offered two doses of legal resolution this week on the administration’s efforts to “reprioritize” state assistance. In one instance, the answer was that the administration couldn’t move ahead in denying health coverage to some low-income young adults; it would violate federal law. In the other, the answer was that LePage’s administration had subverted state law in order to implement a policy denying General Assistance to some noncitizens.
While the administration continues to argue it is fighting to set priorities for doling out limited resources, those budget-conscious claims simply don’t hold up in these two cases. It’s not only the budget figures that undermine them. It’s the LePage administration’s choice to pursue its assistance-denying agenda at all costs — including mounting legal fees and a disregard for state law.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear one LePage case in which he sought, in violation of federal law, to eliminate Medicaid coverage for about 6,000 low-income 19- and 20-year-olds. On Tuesday came the other decision: LePage’s Department of Health and Human Services flouted state law in its attempt to bar towns and cities from giving General Assistance to certain noncitizens — largely those with pending applications for asylum who can’t work while their applications are in administrative limbo. (To be sure, the LePage administration did win a partial victory in the latter case, as Superior Court Justice Thomas D. Warren acknowledged the administration, under federal law, had no obligation to reimburse towns and cities that awarded General Assistance to noncitizens not considered “qualified aliens.”)
The total budget bill?
Medicaid coverage for low-income 19- and 20-year-olds costs the state about $6 million per year. General Assistance for the noncitizens in question makes up a small portion of a program that costs the state about $12 million per year. That’s in the context of more than $3 billion in state spending each year, including more than $1 billion in state spending at DHHS.
Aside from the small nature of the budget lines, what’s especially confounding is the administration’s dogged pursuit of these two assistance-cutting initiatives — laws be damned.
LePage’s bid to have the Supreme Court hear its Medicaid case simply was the latest legal volley in a frivolous battle against the Obama administration stretching back to 2012. LePage’s choice to escalate his beef with the federal government to the courts ultimately will cost taxpayers more than $100,000 in legal fees, according to the Associated Press. If LePage simply allowed a reasonable legal analysis to guide his decision-making, he would have realized he had the weakest of cases. He could have made the responsible choice to cut his losses and move on, instead of waste taxpayers’ time and money.
In fighting the General Assistance battle, the LePage administration showed a blatant disregard for state law by making an end run around the state’s rulemaking process — which requires public input, a sign-off by the attorney general and, in some cases, legislative approval — in order to get its way and carry out a legally significant General Assistance policy change.
“[T]he fact that DHHS originally sought to proceed by rulemaking” before Attorney General Janet Mills’ office initially refused to sign off on the change “is a telling acknowledgement that rulemaking is required,” Superior Court Justice Thomas D. Warren wrote in his 20-page order.
Thankfully, the courts this week have reined in LePage and his dangerously expansive view of the power of his office. Unfortunately, we don’t have much hope LePage will take any lasting lessons from this legal schooling.