Timber on Maine’s public lands belongs to the people of the state. So, when the state suddenly stopped sending wood to one company’s mills and diverted it to others, and perhaps to Canada, lawmakers wanted to know why.
Their list of questions, while long, was pretty straightforward.
But the questions from the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee unleashed a tirade from Gov. Paul LePage, first through a written response and then an in-person tongue lashing on Tuesday.
LePage blasted lawmakers for “not following protocol” because they didn’t address their questions directly to him. Instead, they sent them to Walter Whitcomb, the state’s commissioner of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation, the department that oversees Maine’s public lands.
LePage has long demanded that if lawmakers want information from his many commissioners, they must go through him first. He says this is because lawmakers “disrespect” his commissioners.
Asking for information about departments the commissioners oversee is not disrespectful or harassment. It is a necessary part of the Legislature’s responsibility for oversight of state government.
By refusing to allow commissioners to answer questions or appear before committees, LePage has stifled needed oversight and given the impression that his administration has things to hide.
The case of the diverted wood is convoluted and confusing, which is why lawmakers need to sort out what happened and why.
The first problem is that timber harvested on Maine public lands is sold without a contract, but by verbal agreement. Going forward, contracts should be required.
In February, Pleasant River Lumber Co. was informed that it would no longer be receiving wood from Maine’s public lands. The owners of the company had disagreed with LePage about the impact of tariffs on Canadian wood on the state’s timber industry.
The company’s owners were told that their wood needed to be sent to another mill that faced a wood shortage because of equipment problems. More than a month later, shipments to Pleasant River have not resumed. The state did not stop shipments to a third company, which does not own a mill, and sends some wood to Canada.
After excoriating lawmakers, LePage insisted that the wood diversion was not done to hurt Pleasant River Lumber, but committee members remain skeptical. They have asked that the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability review the situation.
If approved, it will be the second investigation launched within less than a month.
It is odd that the governor insists that he, and he alone, is responsible for answering questions about state timber sales. “The buck stops at the Governor’s desk,” LePage wrote in an angry March 19 letter to the co-chairs of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.
Unfortunately, the governor doesn’t apply this standard evenly. Ten-year-old Marissa Kennedy died last month after months of abuse, prosecutors allege. School officials and others said they reported the alleged abuse to the Department of Health and Human Services but were not told if their concerns were addressed. In 2016, nearly a quarter of calls to the state’s child abuse hotline were not answered. Days before Kennedy’s death, DHHS decided to cancel funding for Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, a child abuse prevention program.
Despite all this, LePage pointed fingers at everyone but himself for Kennedy’s short life and death, which is now being investigated by OPEGA. He called the situation “a comedy of errors.”
If the buck stops with the governor when there are questions about timber procurement, it stops with him when the state’s child protective system fails a child.
The governor doesn’t get to pick and choose.
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