In August, Gov. Paul LePage admitted to barring his department heads from attending and testifying at a meeting of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. “The state is not going to be run by committees,” he said. “It’s going to be run by the chief executive of the state.”
The senseless routine has continued quietly behind the scenes, infuriating lawmakers who have been cut off from the experts they need to make good laws. In previous years, legislative staff could simply call commissioners and other department staff to ask them to speak to legislative committees to provide essential information. Now, the informal process has been politicized to the public’s detriment.
LePage has made it his administration’s policy to require legislative committees, if they want to speak to someone in a department, to send a written request to the governor’s office. The governor and his staff then decide whether to approve it. In several chains of email correspondence among lawmakers, their staff and the LePage administration, few clear reasons are given for why department heads aren’t allowed to participate.
Instead, the commissioners and other department staff often say they will accept questions from lawmakers in writing, instead of appearing in person. Answering questions in writing is a poor way of communicating, slows the process and removes state officials from the public eye.
Lawmakers can’t make policy without the appropriate staff within state agencies providing them with the information they need. The arrangement is not fair to state employees who want to do their jobs but also want to keep them. And it’s certainly not fair to Maine residents, whose tax dollars pay their salaries and whose lives are affected by policy decisions.
For instance, a special legislative commission is currently examining ways to improve the transparency of medical costs. The group will present a report on Dec. 4 with recommendations to inform future legislation. Republicans and Democrats alike agree a cancer patient shouldn’t be charged $77 for a box of gauze, and it absolutely shouldn’t be hidden in an incomprehensible hospital bill.
To do its work, however, the commission needed information from the Department of Health and Human Services, specifically about a $33 million grant it received to test new ways to lower MaineCare costs and improve care. LePage, however, did not approve a request for Jim Leonard, deputy director for the Office of MaineCare Services, to speak to the commission on Sept. 23, according to an email exchange reviewed by the BDN. Without his testimony, lawmakers can’t do the job they were elected to do.
The pattern repeats in other settings. Maine Department of Education Acting Commissioner Jim Rier, Chief Academic Officer Rachelle Tome and Certification Team Coordinator Mark Cyr were all unable to participate in an Oct. 8 meeting with the Legislature’s Education Committee to discuss ways to strengthen teacher preparation, certification and training programs. Last spring, a vote on LD 1361 was delayed, so the committee could have such a discussion during the current legislative interim. According to an email exchange, the committee also hoped to hear from the department on ways to establish standards-based education — something LePage theoretically supports.
On Sept. 30, the lawmakers, business interests, economists and tax experts who make up the Tax Expenditure Review Task Force met to continue finding $40 million in savings in the state’s tax code. The group must find the money by December, or it will come out of the revenue provided to municipalities. The task force asked Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais to attend but was told he was unable to make it. He did not send anyone in his place. Instead, he offered to answer written questions.
One of the most egregious examples of a department head being “unable to attend” was at an Oct. 2 meeting of the Appropriations Committee. The committee wanted to speak to Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew about how her agency is fixing a big problem. A new company arranging transportation services for MaineCare recipients had received thousands of complaints from people about missed rides. Thousands of Maine residents who are blind, have brain injuries and developmental disabilities, and who are sick, have either missed or been late to their doctor’s appointments.
They needed a solution immediately. Yet lawmakers were told Mayhew would “not be in attendance” at the Oct. 2 meeting. She didn’t plan to send a surrogate, either. Instead, the department sent a report and offered to answer written questions. Doing so gave the appearance the state didn’t care about a major problem, even if it did. It’s hard to solve a crisis when you can’t sit down and talk about it.
Department leaders have been able to attend some meetings. Mayhew and Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Sawin Millett, for instance, spoke at an Oct. 9 Appropriations meeting. But so far department heads and their staff have collectively been unable to attend at least 28 legislative meetings, scheduled between mid-September and mid-November, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Office of Policy and Legal Analysis. Legislators say the number of refusals are unprecedented.
The Legislature is currently between sessions, but committees must still meet in order to prepare for future legislation and tackle problems that need immediate fixes. There is no excuse for people to decline to attend or fail to send someone in their place. The dates of meetings are often flexible, and in several instances, committees offered to move dates to suit a commissioner’s schedule.
The Maine Constitution divides the powers of government into three departments — the legislative, executive and judicial — and requires their separation. “No person or persons, belonging to one of these departments, shall exercise any of the powers properly belonging to either of the others,” it states.
LePage is abusing his authority and inhibiting the ability of the legislative branch to do its job. We encourage the public to let his office know it.