AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats on the Appropriations Committee said Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to bar his commissioners from speaking to the committee during public sessions complicates the panel’s work and could sacrifice transparency as lawmakers near completion of deliberations on a $6.3 billion two-year budget bill.
LePage told members of the budget-writing committee last week, through his staff, that if they need questions answered about any portion of his biennial budget proposal, he would answer them personally. That announcement results from the committee’s meeting on May 19, during which LePage surprised lawmakers by attempting an unscheduled address to the committee. Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, who co-chairs the committee, did not allow LePage to speak, saying she would continue the conversation with him in private. That caused the chief executive to angrily leave the meeting.
“Outside this committee won’t happen unless I have a way to speak,” said LePage. “I want to get on the record and this committee is not allowing it. The people of the state of Maine are being played for patsies.”
On Tuesday, Hill stood by that decision and said she hoped LePage’s decision to bar Cabinet members from speaking at the committee’s public proceedings wouldn’t complicate the goal of presenting a unanimous biennial budget recommendation to the full Legislature. But a lot of work remains before that can happen, which Hill said would undoubtedly require detailed answers from various state departments. She doubted that LePage — or anyone else — has a broad enough knowledge base to answer questions about the entirety of state government.
“It’s not a good use of the chief executive’s time,” she said. “He’s got a state to run.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Tuesday morning that lawmakers can still have their questions answered through private conversations or telephone calls.
“Anybody from the administration can speak with the Appropriations Committee at any time, but if they want someone to go before the committee, that will be the governor,” said Bennett. “We want to provide them with all the information they request. There are many ways to communicate other than on the microphone.”
Anything said “on the microphone” during legislative deliberations is broadcast to the world via the Internet and sometimes video. Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said LePage’s new rules could put transparency at risk if important questions about the way state government runs have to be asked in private.
“It’s going to be problematic if he won’t let his commissioners come to our committee,” said Rotundo. “As someone who has been a leader in the State House on the issue of transparency, it does concern me that these conversations won’t be taking place publicly.”
Rotundo and Hill said LePage inserting himself into the legislative process to the extent he has is unprecedented in recent memory in Maine, but in the end, probably won’t have much of an impact on the outcome of the budget deliberations.
“The Appropriations Committee has a history voting out bipartisan, unanimous budgets,” said Rotundo. “Republicans and Democrats alike are very focused on that. We’re able to do that because we all make an effort to park our politics at the door.”
Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, an Appropriations Committee member who co-chaired the committee during the previous Legislature, agreed and said LePage is just one of a legion of lawmakers, lobbyists and members of the public who are all trying to pressure the committee to protect their interests.
“Everyone in this building is trying to do the right thing,” said Flood. “None of this stuff comes easy as we get toward the end of our process.”
Hill said she couldn’t anticipate a need in the short term for the committee to question LePage, but that it is probably inevitable in the next week or two. When that time arrives, she said it would be at the committee’s invitation and that she’ll maintain decorum on both sides of the conversation.
“Some could see [LePage being asked questions in public] as an opportunity to embarrass him, but that’s not anything I want to be a part of,” said Hill. “Members of legislative leadership would never just show up in the governor’s office, and following what happened last Sunday, I don’t expect the governor to just show up again at the committee. We need to get the people’s work done.”