Someday, Gov. Paul LePage might realize that he’s in charge of a state government that’s funded by taxpayers and ultimately accountable to them.
It might dawn on him that the government he leads, under the law, is not some secretive organization free of obligations to shed light on its operations when the public wants to know.
Perhaps someday the governor will realize that the executive branch is subject to oversight and limits on its power from the two other branches of Maine government — the Legislature and the judiciary.
Clearly, that day has not yet arrived for LePage, who on Monday personally told a state representative that his requests for public information from the Maine Department of Education represented “excessive disruption” and “improper influence.”
While the Legislature was still in session earlier this year, state Rep. Brian Hubbell and other lawmakers sought an explanation for why the Department of Education planned to issue $11.2 million less in state school aid than the Legislature had earmarked for that purpose. The Legislature had budgeted more than $1 billion in public school aid, yet the Department of Education had specified plans to disburse less than $990 million of that sum.
“It may be perfectly justified,” said Hubbell, a Democrat from Bar Harbor. “All I want is an explanation.”
But lawmakers haven’t received one. Appropriations Committee members asked the Department of Education’s school finance point person about the discrepancy on April 1, but her responses didn’t answer the question.
So on May 1, Hubbell followed up with a written request for the information. He received no response.
Hubbell submitted a few other written information requests. He asked for documents that the department, by law, should have produced and submitted to the Legislature but didn’t — for example, a list of recommendations from a digital learning advisory group that was due Jan. 15 and a review of the state’s learning standards that was due at some point during the school year that concluded last month.
Department leaders responded to some of Hubbell’s communications, but not most. They didn’t respond to his request for the digital learning recommendations nor to his request for the learning standards review.
Hubbell did receive a response on Monday, just not the one he expected — and not a response that even began to address his queries.
“It is my understanding that you have made requests for information to the Department of Education,” wrote Gov. Paul LePage in a letter to Hubbell. “Since there is no provision of law that grants individual legislators the authority to direct, investigate or compel information from a state agency, I have asked that inquiries of this nature be directed to my office so that our Commissioners and Agency staff are able to run their operations without excessive disruption.
“Of course, I recognize and acknowledge that the Legislature as a whole and its committees may have such authority, but your request does not appear to be made on behalf of any such entity. Moreover, this process eliminates any question as to whether sitting legislators are exerting improper influence on members of state government. Of course, like any Maine citizen, you retain the ability to make records requests under the Freedom of Access Act.
“I appreciate your attention to this important Executive Branch procedure,” LePage concludes.
Apparently, to LePage, requests for information — including information a state agency is obligated to produce under the law — represent “excessive disruption.” A legislator requesting information from the state agency overseen by the committee on which he serves is, apparently, “exerting improper influence on members of state government.” And, in the LePage administration, obstruction is an “important Executive Branch procedure.”
If LePage were the sole owner of a private corporation, the actions of his administration to evade transparency and accountability would be perfectly justified. But LePage is one of more than 1.3 million owners of Maine state government. When voters elected him governor, they did not endow him with limitless powers to escape public accountability.
It’s time LePage woke up from his obstructive and authoritarian daydream and recognized that governing is a collaborative exercise — and an exercise that affords the public a front-row seat.