March 19, 2019
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LePage barred department heads to snub legislators on Tuesday

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday said he barred his department chiefs from making themselves available at a Tuesday meeting of the Appropriations Committee.

“The state is not going to be run by committees, it’s going to be run by the chief executive of the state,” LePage told reporters outside the State House.

LePage said he has instituted a policy: When legislative committees want to speak with a department head, they must go through him. The Appropriations Committee refused to do that, he said.

“A simple letter to my office, asking who you want to speak with, will work,” he said. “That’s all you have to do. They challenged me, and nobody showed up.”

Lawmakers on the committee had asked for commissioners from the Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Administrative and Financial Services, and the head of Maine Revenue Services. None were present at the meeting, nor did they send surrogates.

Democrats noted that nonpartisan Appropriations Committee staff sent requests to appear at Tuesday’s meeting directly to commissioners and to Kathleen Newman, LePage’s deputy chief of staff.

It was the continuation of a fight between the governor and the powerful budget-writing committee, which began last spring when LePage was prevented from speaking to the committee by Senate Chairwoman Dawn Hill, D-York, who said she would not let the governor address the legislators because she wanted the meeting to end “on a good note.”

After that meeting, the governor decreed that none of his department heads would speak to Appropriations, and that he would be the sole representative of the executive branch.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of Appropriations, said Tuesday that the flap between LePage and lawmakers about whether to convene a special session to pass the governor’s $100 million transportation bond is nothing but politics.

On Wednesday, after LePage explained why his administration pulled a no-show, Rotundo was exasperated. Democrats want to pass a transportation bond too — along with others for education and research and development — she said, but they are happy to do it in September, as has been planned for months.

She said the governor was only pushing the issue because he wants to “make it look like Democrats don’t want to get this done.”

“Rather than wanting to work with us, [LePage] was trying to pick a fight with us,” she said.

Hill said that when nobody showed up on Tuesday, she suspected the governor may have been involved. She said it was inappropriate for the governor to put himself between the committee and the people it needs to talk to.

“I sort of thought that when the session ended, we might have a fresh start for the rest of the year,” she said Wednesday. “When the governor carried this policy, or attitude, forward, it’s disappointing to me that we can’t just be big girls and big boys and move on.”

In a letter sent Wednesday evening to Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, LePage reiterated his policy for lawmakers meeting with his commissioners. He said he respects the work of the Legislature, but that he needs to control the schedules of executive branch staff.

“I will determine how the executive branch most effectively spends its time with the legislative branch, not the other way around,” he wrote. He also repeated that any requests by legislators to speak with any executive branch personnel be funneled through him.

Hill said she would speak with the rest of the committee about whether to play by LePage’s rules, but that she would not support anything that would compromise the Legislature’s power.

“The Legislature is on equal standing with the governor,” she said. “I’m willing to work to find a solution, but nothing that upstages the authority of the Legislature. That’s a no-go.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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