|12/18/2013 5:37:00 PM|
Eye on Augusta: Rep. Dion talks to empty chair - Governor's "Gag Order" Grinds Gears of Government
by Andy OBrienLast week members of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee took a special trip to Augusta to vote on a proposal to allow Maine's forest rangers to carry firearms. But when committee co-chair Rep. Mark Dion (D-Portland) asked whether there was anyone from the LePage administration who could give information to the lawmakers on the panel to guide their decisions, no one answered.
"Effective legislation can't occur without the respect by both branches of government, and therefore I'll talk to the empty chair," said the exasperated chairman.
Unable to do their business, the lawmakers tabled the bill and went home.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the building, members of the Health and Human Services Committee were also having a trying morning. The state is set to lose $20 million in federal money after the Riverview psychiatric facility was decertified in September.
On top of all that, a $28 million contract signed last summer with Connecticut-based Coordinated Transportation Solutions (CTS) to provide non-emergency rides to low-income, disabled and elderly Mainers had turned into a boondoggle - with wrong information given to ride providers, patients being stranded, and expensive taxis being hired in place of volunteers. Now it appeared from copies of a corrective action plan provided to lawmakers that the broker was asking for more money, but with no one from the Department of Health and Human Services to answer questions, they would have to wait a few days until a written answer could be provided.
As Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Wathan gave a presentation on the status of the Riverview facility, about 900 pages of documents and answers to questions about the status of the department's programs that the committee members submitted three weeks earlier were dumped in front of each lawmaker to plow through. After asking the committee's policy analyst to read the answers to four or five questions, committee chair Sen. Margaret Craven (D-Androscoggin) said she realized that the legislators would be there all week if they continued in that fashion.
Although no answers were provided on the mic for listening members of the public, the 900-page tome has been meticulously scanned and uploaded online for taxpayers to read at their leisure.
Teaching the Legislature a Lesson
Ever since last summer, Gov. LePage has often refused to allow his department heads and staff to attend meetings of the Legislature's policy committees. Instead, if members of the Legislature want answers, they must submit them in writing and wait for a response. Follow-up questions are handled the same way.
For Democratic leaders, the policy has been an ongoing headache which has slowed down their work and often resulted in lawmakers traveling to Augusta from across the state only to find that they can't do their job. As Sen. Craven explained, making public decisions in an open and transparent fashion requires information from bureaus and departments controlled by the executive branch.
"These are serious, complex problems requiring immediate solutions, and we're working with three-week-old information," said a very irritated Sen. Craven after the DHHS meeting. "Patients aren't getting the care they need, staff are in danger, and instead of working to find a solution, the department sends a memo."
Speaking to WABI-TV that day, Gov. LePage was adamant that the 900-page report was sufficient.
"I mean they have the report," said the governor. "If they need teaching, someone to help them read it, that's a different ballgame. I can send an English teacher or something if they need it. But as far as understanding it, it's written in English. They can agree or disagree. That's what it is."
For Governor LePage, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. His decision to restrict access to executive branch staff stems back to a slight that occurred on a Sunday afternoon back in June when the governor showed up unannounced in the Appropriations Committee room during tense budget discussions. After committee chair Sen. Dawn Hill (D-York) denied the governor's request to speak, citing the sensitive political nature of the budget talks, the governor stormed out with the parting words, "It's unfortunate that the people of the state of Maine are being played for patsies!" In August when the governor's department heads didn't show up for a discussion on a proposed bond package, he cited the June incident:
"I attempted to speak to the Appropriations Committee to what I thought was very important and they did not allow me to speak, so therefore, if the chief executive officer of the state cannot speak, then I'm going to be a little tough on who goes out to speak," the governor told reporters at the time.
Gov. LePage has described his unconventional policy, which Democrats dubbed the "gag order," as a way to foster "transparency" by creating a paper trail and not allowing department answers to become sound bites for what he calls the "liberal media."
Democrats have accused the governor of violating the state Constitution, which requires the legislative and executive branches to share information. After 24 Democratic heads of the Legislature's policy committees signed a letter requesting an end to the directive, the governor fired back last month in an open letter stating that committee members had "chastised, scolded, and badgered" his staff.
"[Department staff] have been kept waiting for hours while you pontificate and preen for the cameras and then subject them to interminable, repetitive questions. No more," the governor wrote in his November 12 letter.
A Failure to Cut "Welfare to Communities"
Rep. Mark Dion has said that he may decide to use subpoena powers to require department staff to work with his committee. Others have consulted with the Attorney General's office to see if the directive is in violation of the Constitution.
Meanwhile, as it is increasingly likely that the state will find itself with yet another budget shortfall, Gov. LePage has informed Democrats that, since they overrode his veto of the previous budget last June, they can craft a new one on their own.
Although proposing a budget is traditionally the job of the governor, last week the Democratic chairs of Appropriations sent a letter to the governor requesting that he allow department heads to provide financial information to the panel so that they can write a supplemental budget. However, as the governor is still seething from the fact that the Legislature did not cut municipal revenue sharing to towns and cities - which he calls "welfare to communities" - it remains to be seen how cooperative he will allow Maine's departments to be.
Either way, says Sen. Craven, the current atmosphere in Augusta is not the way the system is supposed to work.
"We are all duly elected by our constituents and the taxpayers of Maine," said Sen. Craven. "Not only do the taxpayers of Maine pay our salary, but they pay the governor's salary and everybody who works in the State House. We have a democracy that is supposed to be transparent and for everybody, including the general public, to be able to hear and understand what's going on and how their dollars are being spent. That's not happening."
Posted: Thursday, December 19, 2013
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I was stressed just reading about the Governor's behavior. He may or may not have violated the Constitution but he is certainly guilty of creating a hostile work environment.
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