In this Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, file photo, supporters of Medicaid expansion celebrate their victory, in Portland, Maine. The credit rating agency Moody's Investors Service says Maine voters' decision to expand Medicaid might make it more difficult for the state to keep its budget balanced. Voters decided they wanted Maine to expand Medicaid to some 70,000 citizens in a public referendum on Tuesday. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Health and Human Services asked a Maine court this week to throw out a lawsuit seeking to force Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to implement voter-approved Medicaid expansion.

The state’s response to the lawsuit filed by expansion advocates last month in Kennebec County Superior Court is a more formal version of the case that the Republican governor has long made: He can’t implement a law that hasn’t yet been funded by the Legislature.

Maine voters approved expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act in a 2017 referendum that gave the LePage administration until April 3 to send an expansion plan to the federal government and start covering some of the 70,000 eligible residents by July 2.

But LePage, who vetoed expansion bids five times before the referendum passed, has erected high hurdles for the Legislature to fund the new law. He has said it must be funded at a contested estimate from his administration and that he wouldn’t approve any mechanism that raised taxes or touched the state’s reserve fund.

Democrats have argued that the law doesn’t have to be fully funded immediately. Advocates have said LePage is in clear violation of the law and that the state’s surplus — estimated earlier this year at more than $130 million — could be used by the administration to implement it.

The administration’s response to the lawsuit — filed Monday and released by the governor’s office on Thursday — says that the Legislature must dedicate money to implementation and that the department “lacks legal authority” to spend money on it. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for May 24 in Portland.

The Legislature adjourned for 2018 earlier this month without addressing start-up funding for expansion, which was a priority for Democrats in a wider battle with House Republicans over a compromise spending package. They are expected to return to Augusta later this year to finish a mountain of outstanding business, but it is unclear when they will come back.

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Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...