LePage-nominated Dirigo Health critic will get chance to respond at new hearing

Posted March 07, 2013, at 11:55 a.m.
Last modified March 07, 2013, at 6:12 p.m.
Jonathan McKane
Jonathan McKane

AUGUSTA, Maine —The Maine Senate on Thursday agreed to send a controversial nomination from Gov. Paul LePage for the Dirigo Health board of trustees back to the committee that rejected the nomination.

The move will allow former Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle, a chance to respond to testimony from a number of people who opposed his nomination at his confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Legislature’s Insurance and Financial Services Committee.

The Insurance and Financial Services panel voted 8-5 against his nomination, and the Senate was scheduled to take up the nomination Thursday. Instead, the committee will hear from McKane on Tuesday, March 12, and vote again on his nomination.

Republicans had criticized Democratic leadership for not allowing McKane a chance to respond to the criticism raised in testimony at Tuesday’s hearing.

“It’s a bit of a gray area as to whether or not you have to let him respond,” said Ericka Dodge, a spokeswoman for Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “The Republicans felt strongly that he needed that opportunity. We felt, we want to be fair about this.”

The Legislature’s joint rules for confirmation hearings don’t address whether nominees have the chance to respond to testimony opposing them, but the script legislative committee chairs use to conduct confirmation hearings specifies that nominees have the chance to respond to opposing testimony.

Sen. Michael Thibodeau, the Senate Republican leader who recommended McKane to LePage, said late Thursday he hoped McKane would receive a fair hearing next week.

“Jon McKane is clearly qualified to serve on the Dirigo Board,” Thibodeau said in a statement. “Democrats on the committee know this, so they chose to engage in Washington-style smear tactics to prevent his nomination. This type of political maneuvering represents everything the people of Maine have come to detest about what happens at the State House.”

LePage last month chose McKane to serve on the Dirigo Health board as the program winds down. McKane, who served eight years in the Maine House, has been a longtime and outspoken critic of the program.

“It wasn’t thought out, it was extremely expensive and it wasn’t achieving its goals,” he said Tuesday of Dirigo Health, a signature program of former Gov. John Baldacci’s first term.

During Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, Democrats on the insurance committee pressed McKane to explain past comments he made about Dirigo Health staff members and supporters, male and female, whom he called “Dirigirls.” They also asked if he could serve on a board with which he has disagreed so sharply.

Opponents of McKane’s nomination testified that his comments were sexist and said his opposition to Dirigo Health and its mission should disqualify him from the board position.

The Republican-led Legislature in 2011 phased out Dirigo Health’s funding mechanism, and the board is expected to finish winding down the program within a year.

LePage reacted angrily to Tuesday’s committee vote against McKane, accusing Democrats of playing “partisan politics” and vowing to keep vacant the Dirigo Health board seat to which he had nominated McKane.

The committee’s seven Democrats and one independent member, Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth, opposed McKane’s nomination while the panel’s five Republicans supported it.

The committee on Tuesday also unanimously approved two other LePage nominees for Dirigo Health board positions: former Republican Reps. Gary Reed of Falmouth and Wes Richardson of Warren. Those nominations won unanimous approval from the full Senate on Thursday.

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