GOP legislator pushes investigation of nonpartisan legislative staff

Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville
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Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville
Posted Feb. 28, 2014, at 5:16 p.m.
Last modified March 01, 2014, at 7:36 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Suspicious of untoward political activity, a Republican member of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee is requesting an investigation into emails from nonpartisan State House staff who are charged with providing dispassionate, objective analysis to lawmakers.

Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, presented his request during the committee’s meeting on Friday. He said it was a response to several emails obtained and published by The Maine Wire, the media arm of the state’s leading conservative think tank, The Maine Heritage Policy Center.

The emails document communication from Jane Orbeton, a senior analyst with the Office of Legal and Policy Analysis, to Democratic lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee and with Maine Equal Justice Partners, an independent group that advocates for low-income Mainers.

In one email, Orbeton asks MEJP’s litigation director why no one had sued the Department of Health and Human Services over failures in the state’s nonemergency Medicaid transportation system. Orbeton told The Maine Wire she was asking on behalf of a lawmaker, not as a suggestion that a lawsuit should have been filed.

In another email, Orbeton asked, “Is there any hope for low-income people?” She later requested the email be deleted. Maine’s Freedom of Access law prohibits the deletion of messages sent to or from state email addresses.

Another email exchange published by the Heritage Policy Center appears to show Orbeton giving talking points to Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, who is chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee.

In an email to Craven during a Medicaid expansion debate last year, Orbeton wrote several examples of how to “put faces” on the 70,000 people that stood to gain health insurance under expansion. In a Senate debate the same day, Craven used the same language that Orbeton had sent her.

Davis said he’s requesting an inquiry into communications from all staff of the Office of Policy and Legal Analysis, which provides legal analysts to most of the Legislature’s committees. He said he has no concern with the Office of Fiscal and Program Review, which staffs the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, or the office of the Revisor of Statutes, which drafts the official language for bills.

Davis said the emails by Orbeton “makes people curious as to what’s going on. The staff is supposed to be nonpartisan. There isn’t supposed to be any partiality shown. This gives the impression that maybe there is.”

Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, is co-chairwoman of the Government Oversight Committee. She said Davis’ request would be given due consideration at an upcoming committee meeting, and stressed that because the committee is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, any inquiry would need support from both parties.

However, she said she has no reason to believe any nonpartisan staff are engaged in unethical activities.

“I’d say my experience leads me to have complete confidence in the work and integrity of everyone who works at OPLA,” she said. “However, all requests that come to Government Oversight are treated the same. We received it today, and in the coming weeks, at some point, it will appear on the agenda.”

Nonpartisan staff also came under scrutiny Friday by DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who in a news release questioned the integrity of OFPR, the nonpartisan, independent agency responsible for compiling fiscal analyses of proposed legislation.

On Thursday, that office released a preliminary report that showed Maine could expand Medicaid to roughly 70,000 low-income Mainers for three years at negligible cost to the state under a proposal by Republican Sens. Roger Katz of Augusta and Tom Saviello of Wilton. (The expansion would be funded nearly entirely with federal dollars).

Mayhew, a political appointee of Republican Gov. Paul LePage and fierce opponent of Medicaid expansion, criticized the fiscal office for diverging from DHHS estimates that predict expansion would cost the state tens of millions of dollars.

On Thursday, OFPR analyst Christopher Nolan told the Legislator’s Health and Human Services Committee that DHHS’ analysis did not include provisions of the Katz-Saviello plan that ended Medicaid expansion after three years or savings expected to be realized by the expansion of federal funding for Medicaid services currently paid for with state dollars only.

“We have to price what the bill is,” Nolan said. “This is what the bill is, and that’s what we priced.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

 

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