When Governor Paul LePage boarded a plane for an unscheduled Jamaican vacation in early April, Maine moderates and progressives breathed a sigh of relief. A political virus that had infected the executive functions of state government — Tea Particus politicitus — had been isolated before it could spread into our lawmaking bodies. Maine's longstanding tradition of political moderation and generally cordial, practical lawmaking appeared to have won the day, marginalizing the tantrum-prone governor and a legislative agenda literally ghostwritten by corporate lobbyists (see "LePage's Secret Puppeteers," by Colin Woodard, February 11). "The LePage era," Portland Press Herald editorialist Greg Kesich proclaimed, "is over."
But last month, a new era dawned over our Republican-controlled capital, with characteristics that gave many Mainers pause. It arrived in the form of a health-insurance overhaul bill of staggering breadth and unknowable consequences, introduced by surprise, and blasted through the legislature's organs so fast that many of those voting on it had little idea what it contained. Drafted behind closed doors, the new law's contents evaded public hearing, bypassed the usual review by actuaries, analysts, and even the Appropriations Committee, signaling that the Republican legislative leadership has an uncompromising commitment to many controversial aspects of LePage's deregulatory agenda, if not to the governor himself.
The hopes of some that moderate Republicans might preside over a reasonably thoughtful legislative cycle — as evidenced by their spurning of LePage's more extreme environmental reforms, the billboard law, and the "show your papers" immigration bill — have been crushed by a sudden, full-on, ill-considered legislative coup. It was certainly not the first time legislators have rushed a bill through the State House before most of them could read it, but not in recent memory have they done so with an issue that, mishandled, could result in the bankruptcy, suffering, or death of so many of their constituents.
The new law turns upside-down the state's approach to reducing health-insurance costs, weakening consumer protections in favor of "market-based" reforms that will allegedly increase competition. What it will mean for the cost and quality of Mainers' health insurance is unclear at this early stage, although the track record in other states suggests we may see lower premiums for the young, healthy, and (uterus-free) males; and higher ones for the chronically ill, the elderly, pregnant women, and residents of rural areas, where specialized services are often more expensive. LePage promised in his radio address this week that the new law "will give our state the economic growth we need and provide affordable health insurance for everyone." Representative Sharon Treat — the Democrats' insurance point woman — says "it's a big gift to the insurance industry" that's going to result in "some people getting hurt, and possibly a lot of people."
Truth is, nobody knows what the effect will be because Republicans passed the bill before anybody had a chance to digest its extensive and frequently amended contents.
Indeed, the bill — LD 1333 — caught Democrats and would-be opponents entirely unawares. Normally, a bill surfaces, copies circulate among lawmakers, stakeholders, and the interested citizens, and a public hearing is held. Legislators in the relevant committee sit around a horseshoe and hear testimony from supporters, opponents, and positions in between to get a sense of how the proposed law might be improved or, indeed, if it is worthy of passage at all.