Late last week, Gov. Paul LePage issued an order barring all of his cabinet-level executives from testifying before the Appropriations Committee as lawmakers mold and adopt the state budget.
Given that Appropriations is under enormous pressure to make major money decisions in the next couple of weeks, this is a curiously poor time to put the kibosh on critical information.
On Friday, the governor’s spokeswoman said the order was a direct response to a May 19 decision by Appropriations Chairwoman Dawn Hill, D-York, to silence the governor at an emergency committee meeting held to address a Department of Health and Human Services shortfall. LePage felt censored by the Dems and was angry about it.
Then, on Tuesday, another spokesman from the Governor’s Office said the move was done to protect cabinet-level executives from being berated by Appropriations members as the session comes to a close.
Whatever the reason, the governor himself has offered to provide any information Appropriations members need. In person. Testifying at the podium in place of his Cabinet members.
According to LePage’s office, the absence of Cabinet officials during committee work won’t affect the committee process anyway, because Cabinet members will still be allowed to speak to budget writers by phone or communicate by email.
In other words, Cabinet members and lawmakers will be discussing Maine’s budget details outside the public committee process.
LePage is, by all accounts, a hands-on kind of guy. He gets involved in his departments at deeper levels than many governors before him, and likes to know what is going on.
Getting involved is good. But speaking for the entire Cabinet regarding every dollar of proposed spending and anticipating possible ramifications of that spending during the tense committee process is simply not realistic.
The governor’s Cabinet is made up of executives who administer 17 different state departments, from intricate budgeting within the Department of Administrative & Financial Services — headed by Commissioner Sawin Millett — on down to the Workers’ Compensation Board, headed by Executive Director Paul Sighinolfi.
In between? The departments of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; Corrections; Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management; Economic and Community Development; Education; Environmental Protection; Health & Human Services; Inland Fisheries & Wildlife; Labor; Marine Resources; Professional and Financial Regulation; Public Safety; Transportation; Finance Authority of Maine; and the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management.
Every commissioner and director heading every one of those departments is working full time to manage people, programs and finances. It is just not conceivable for any one person — no matter how determined LePage may be — to anticipate and answer all questions for all departments while standing before Appropriations.
The governor’s decision to ban commissioners from Appropriations grossly hinders the full flow and exchange of information.
Worse, he is knowingly forcing budget discussions out of the public realm.
Cabinet members will provide information to lawmakers by email and private conversation, well outside the public committee process.
And, Cabinet members will attend closed-door party caucus meetings to discuss spending.
Commissioner Millett already has.
On Tuesday, Millett attended the minority Republican caucus — but not the majority Democratic caucus — to discuss the state’s finances.
Appropriations Committee member Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Augusta, who once chaired Appropriations, is certain that lawmakers will still be able to get information they need to make informed decisions.
Not if communications are relegated to email and personal conversations with minority caucus members.
And, certainly not when that means majority members are getting financial information second- or possibly third-hand. And, maybe only after that information spins around just a little.
Committee work is more than fitting neat pieces of information and rounded-off dollars on a spreadsheet. It is discussing the merits of state programs, which ones are worthy of increased funding and how to manage others with less funding.
Commissioners of these state agencies attend Appropriations Committee meetings precisely so they can participate in conversations and so the legislative and executive branches — working together — can craft the best possible public policy and implement the most streamlined programs with the least pain for taxpayers.
But, now, instead of discussing these various aspects of the state's budget in the public hearing room at the Legislature with the committee of oversight, lawmakers will depend on private conversations or email exchanges with Cabinet members for budget details.
Or, if a question pops up during a committee meeting that the governor is not able to answer (if he's even invited to attend), and a commissioner is not available by phone or email, questions will go unanswered.
That’s not a full exchange of information.
And that’s definitely not good government.
But, then, it’s happened before.
LePage issued the same order during the last two-year budget cycle, when Republicans were in the majority, and Appropriations forged ahead without the benefit of cabinet-level expertise and insight.
Did we get a budget?
Will we get one again?
But, if DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, Finance Commissioner Millett, Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt, DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho and 10 other cabinet-level executives are not each a full and involved part of the conversation as Appropriations works the budget line by line, will we get the best social services, the best education programs, the best fiscal management, the best labor practices, the best public safety, the best road and infrastructure development and the best environmental protections possible?
And that’s a completely and utterly avoidable disgrace.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.