AUGUSTA — State lawmakers on the Legislature's powerful, budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee said Tuesday that work on the state's next two-year budget would continue despite an order from Gov. Paul LePage that bars commissioners in his Cabinet from appearing before the committee.
LePage said last week he would no longer allow his top Cabinet members, including Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett, to appear before the committee.
LePage said that if the committee needed information from his administration, he would be the one to provide it to them.
The decision came after the committee's Senate chairwoman, Dawn Hill, D-York, did not allow LePage to address the committee on May 19.
LePage's communications director Peter Steele said Tuesday the governor was protecting his commissioners from being berated by the committee.
"He just doesn't think they should be beat up by the committee," Steele said.
Some Democratic leaders said LePage had issued the order blocking their testimony because the information they might present would be in disagreement with the governor's views.
House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said the move by LePage would undoubtedly slow down the committee's work.
"These are people who have an area of expertise, whether it's Marine Resources or the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife," McCabe said. He said particularly complicated budgets, such as those managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, were difficult to fully understand without information from the commissioner.
"We are going to have to make decisions with questionable information," McCabe said.
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of the committee, said members often depend on commissioners for information, and now the committee would press on without that information.
Rotundo said she wasn't interested in "politicizing" the committee's work and that her intent was to move forward with a budget that would gain the unanimous support of the committee.
"I'm not in a position to be able to say what the governor knows in terms of the workings of those departments and what he doesn't," Rotundo said.
LePage previously had disallowed his commissioners from appearing before legislative committees, including during the creation of the last two-year budget, which was prepared while Republicans held the majority in the Legislature.
Rotundo said the committee was "focused on working on this budget, a unanimous, bipartisan budget. We are all focused, everybody on Appropriations is focused, on getting this budget out and not being distracted."
State Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, the only Republican senator on the committee and a former chairman, said the committee's work would continue and lawmakers could get the information from commissioners they needed to make informed decisions.
Flood said the last time commissioners were barred from testifying before the committee, members were still able to complete a budget. "It was a week or two that we went without their testimony and I can't remember why, but I think it was rescinded and then we had them again," Flood said.
"I'll miss the commissioners, but I believe we can meet with them privately," Flood said. Flood said Millett, the finance commissioner, attended the Republican caucus Tuesday morning, so lawmakers were still getting access to the commissioners, just not in the formal setting of a committee meeting.
Flood said he had not heard that the commissioners were being kept from testifying because they were in conflict with the Governor's Office.
As to the potential mistreatment of commissioners by lawmakers, Flood said, "I've never berated a commissioner and I'm not going to. I love having them come before us, and if they can't for a period of time, we will make do."
Steele said LePage had not yet been invited to appear before the committee.
"I'm sure they won't ask him," Steele said.