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In unprecedented defiance of lawmakers, Mills refuses to hand over nursing home funding bill

Governor Janet Mills does an interview in the Maine State House.

AUGUSTA – The state of play for a bill in the Maine State House appears to have crossed into unprecedented territory. According to some in the state house, a sitting Governor has never refused to allow a bill sent to them by the Maine Legislature to be recalled by lawmakers from the Governor’s desk.

This week, however, Governor Janet Mills did just that when presented with a joint order from the Maine House and Senate to recall a nursing home funding bill that she has been holding since the legislative session ended in June.

Frustrated by Mills’ refusal to allow the bill to move forward and put what they say is much needed funding into Maine’s nursing homes to stave off further nursing home closures, Republicans drafted an order to recall the bill during last week’s special legislative day.

Perhaps not eager to pick a fight with a Governor of their own party, but also not willing to allow Republicans to take credit for reviving a high-profile piece of legislation that Mills appeared poised to allow to die, legislative Democrats drafted their own joint order.

Identical to the Republican order aside from the Republican sponsor’s name being stripped and a Democrat added, the Maine House and Senate unanimously passed the order, insisting Mills release the nursing home funding bill back to them. Their goal, they said, was to make changes to address Mills’ concerns even though they feel her assessment is incorrect and she made a mistake on the bill.

Mills then flatly refused to obey the joint order, which Senate Republicans said set a “serious and dangerous precedent, just so she could prevent the money from reaching nursing homes.”

In a news release, Senate Republicans hit Mills for what they said was an action no Maine Governor had ever taken, refusal to comply with a Joint Order from the Maine Legislature to recall a bill from the Governor’s desk.

Mills initially didn’t make a public statement, then broke her silence by saying the nursing homes “are ok.” Mills also called the joint order a “political act with no productive goal.”

In response, Senate Republicans once again laid out their aim of providing increased funding to nursing homes, citing the closure of numerous facilities in the last two years as ample justification for the funding.

They say Mills is making false claims about the risk of increasing the funding. One objection the Governor has put forward is that there is a “payment limit” which puts DHHS at risk of losing federal funds if the bill passes as it is.

Republicans respond by pointing to a provision within the law that forbids the state from exceeding the payment limit. They also say that there is no federal regulation or law that would put the state at risk of losing existing federal funding. Even if the the state of Maine somehow violated state law and exceeded the payment limit, Republicans say the only loss would be matching federal dollars on the portion of state spending that exceeded the limit.

Still, Mills stands by her refusal to release the bill to the legislature despite the overwhelming support of lawmakers to get the bill to a place where she will allow it to become law and send more funding to Maine’s nursing homes.

News reports indicate that seven nursing homes had closed in the 24 months leading up to the passage of the state budget. Those nursing homes were located in: Bar Harbor; Patten; Jonesport; Freeport; West Paris; Bridgton and Fryeburg.

Mills points to other state funding provided in the recently passed state budget as evidence of support of nursing homes, but lawmakers say that funding is required under existing law to maintain the status quo. “Under that status quo, seven Maine nursing homes have closed. Clearly, the level her budget maintains for nursing homes is not sufficient,” said Senate Republicans.

Lawmakers from both sides have shown a willingness to work with Mills to fix the problem, with Republicans in early July telling Mills they were willing to believe her initial decision to hold the bill was an honest mistake. Neither those overtures, or pleas from Maine’s nursing homes appear to have softened Mills.

As the situation stands now, lawmakers will not have another shot at increased nursing home funding until the legislature reconvenes in January.

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