AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday that he’ll once again allow department heads to address lawmakers face-to-face in committee meetings.
For months, LePage has upheld a policy that members of his Cabinet and other executive branch employees correspond with legislative committees in writing only. Democrats who chair legislative committees — especially the budget-writing Appropriations Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee — have said the policy unnecessarily slowed their work and prevented them from getting information only obtainable via back-and-forth dialogue.
Tensions between LePage and Democratic legislative leaders escalated late during the biennial budget deliberations in May after Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, Senate chairwoman of Appropriations, refused to allow LePage to speak to the committee. Soon thereafter, the governor advised his top-level staff not to attend legislative meetings, and told lawmakers to submit questions to the executive branch in writing.
LePage also accused lawmakers of wasting his employees’ time by keeping them at meetings for hours on end, and said Democrats wanted to “berate” department chiefs for political points. He also described corresponding in writing as more professional and efficient.
In an interview with a group of hand-selected State House reporters on Thursday, the governor said his staff had been working with legislative leaders to come to an arrangement, and that a letter requesting a renewed effort for civility and respect sent Thursday by legislative leaders in both parties to the entire Legislature was enough to make him end the policy.
“We’ve been working with leadership for the last three weeks to resolve the differences, and we’ve all come to the same place,” LePage said. He later added: “I had only stopped them from going because of the tone of certain legislators.”
Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, characterized their letter to lawmakers as “routine,” but said they had sent a copy to the governor. Both said they were pleased that the impasse has been broken.
The two Democrats and their Republican counterparts — House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport and Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport — “want this session to go very well,” said Alfond. “Mainers expect it and we feel it’s important, because of all the noise coming out of Augusta, that these are our expectations for the second session.”
In the letter, the four leaders said that decorum was essential given the “difficult, complicated and politically charged issues” facing the Legislature in the shorter second session. On the docket for 2014 are welfare reform, Medicaid expansion, budget adjustments and a host of other possibly contentious issues.
“It is up to committee chairs, leads and the presiding officers to ensure that members maintain general civility and decorum during all legislative proceedings,” they wrote. “Our public hearings and floor debates are never appropriate venues for disrespecting or questioning the motivations or character of legislative colleagues, other members of state government or members of the public.”
Fredette said in a brief interview that “some of the best work we do in this building is done in a bipartisan fashion, like the bond package we got approved.”
He followed: “We’re in a political arena, but that’s no reason to take potshots at people.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.