April 20, 2018
Contributors Latest News | Poll Questions | Kenduskeag Stream Race | Opioids | Maine Legislature

Accountability depends on separation of powers

By David Farmer

Despite their constitutionally mandated independence from the governor, the attorney general, the treasurer and the secretary of state are acting like members of the LePage administration.

We have a system of checks and balances to ensure that no branch of government exceeds its constitutional powers. When the separation is ignored, government becomes less accountable to the people.

The attorney general, the treasurer and the secretary of state are elected by the Legislature and are part of the legislative branch of government. They also perform what are usually considered executive branch functions.

This duality can distort the appropriate balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of government.

In one recent example, Attorney General Bill Schneider has filled a role more suitable for the governor’s lawyers.

In the case of Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Darryl Brown, there are legitimate questions about whether the sources of his income over the last two years disqualify him from serving in his current position.

House Democratic Leader Emily Cain requested an opinion from the AG, after giving ample time for the LePage administration to ask for an opinion. Schneider refused to issue an opinion to Cain, saying that he is helping Brown prepare his official response to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is also looking into the question.

Under state law, the AG represents government personnel when their official acts are called into question. In this case, the question is whether Brown is disqualified from serving as DEP commissioner under federal and state laws that bar from that post anyone who derived some income in the past two years from clients that needed federal water permits. His actions in office are not being challenged.

State law also says the attorney general shall give his written opinion on questions of law submitted by the governor, heads of state departments or members of the Legislature.

By his decision to assist Brown — while not addressing the appropriateness of the appointment — the AG has moved much closer to the executive and further from the Legislature to which he is accountable.

The governor’s office has a chief legal counsel and assistant legal counsel. They, not the AG, should assist in answering EPA questions about Brown’s qualifications.

Above all else, the AG is supposed to represent the interest of the people, which might not always align with the interest of the governor.

Treasurer Bruce Poliquin also has approached his role in a way that seeks to expand his personal authority, creating a gloom-and-doom roadshow that eventually will undermine the state’s credit rating while also distorting the reality of the long-term challenges faced by the state’s pension system.

His efforts to expand his power — and his obvious allegiance to Gov. Paul LePage — are creating friction among both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature.

His full-throated advocacy for the governor’s plan to undermine Maine’s public pension system and financially punish state workers and teachers and his sky-is-falling rhetoric have placed him in public eye as a surrogate for the governor. Despite being the governor’s hand-picked choice, Poliquin doesn’t represent the executive branch. He’s just acting like it.

While the office of the treasurer is filled through partisan elections, the duties of the office are not usually political. The treasurer’s rightful role is to check to the growing power of the executive branch, not act as its enabler.

Poliquin is running for something and he’s using his job as treasurer to set the stage.

Secretary of State Charlie Summers, a former lawmaker and federal appointee, also has abundant political ambition, which is no sin. But his effort to transform the Office of the Secretary of State into a small-business advocacy organization crosses into the territory of the Department of Economic and Community Development within the executive branch.

And his desire to intercede on behalf of businesses to halt enforcement of the law makes a mockery of separation of powers between the branches of government.

While everyone can agree that helping businesses grow is worthwhile, creating new and redundant levels of government isn’t the best approach.

Legislative term limits, access to experts and resources give the executive branch tremendous advantages. The AG, treasurer and secretary of state should act to check the power of the executive, not enhance it out of personal ambition, loyalty or political expediency.

David Farmer is former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci. A longtime journalist, he has been an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. He may be reached at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

You may also like