Lawmakers: LePage gag order means we can’t tell if DHHS is doing its job

Good morning from Augusta, where lawmakers on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee say they can’t complete a review of the department they oversee because no one from the department would come talk to them about it.

Last Thursday’s House calendar included a letter, signed by co-chairs Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, and Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, stating that their committee “was unable to engage in direct dialogue with any members of the department,” despite all other committees having the opportunity to do so.

“After seeking permission from Gov. [Paul] LePage to allow DHHS Commissioner [Ricker] Hamilton’s attendance at the committee’s meeting … the committee was informed that no one from the department would be in attendance,” reads the letter.

The committee sent written questions to Hamilton in early February and received written responses a month later, but wasn’t satisfied. “All of the answers prompted further questions that could not be explored,” reads the letter.

These reviews are supposed to happen every eight years. The Government Evaluation Act requires that as part of the Legislature’s oversight responsibilities. The committee wrote that it hoped to address a number of issues the department itself identified as “emerging” in its report, including rural health care and long-term plans for patients to access health care, the need for workers in the healthcare sector, the child protection system, the opioid crisis, the status of Riverview Psychiatric Center’s federal certification and the accompanying funding, the number of crisis beds in Maine and plans to respond to public health threats.

The is the latest chapter in a long history of LePage blocking Cabinet members and executive branch officials from testifying to the Legislature. For years, LePage has said all questions for executive branches should be submitted in writing tho him personally, though there have been numerous examples of questions being sent and largely ignored. One committee that has voiced frustration about that is the Appropriation and Financial Affairs Committee in its deliberations last year and in previous years about developing the state’s biennial budget.

LePage has been showing up to talk to committees, but only when he chooses. He went to the budget committee earlier this year to advocate for a student debt bond proposal, blasted individual members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee for the committee’s written questions regarding the sale of timber from public lands, and showed up at at least one committee’s vetting interview of a judicial nominee.

The governor has often said he won’t subject his commissioners to partisan grilling by lawmakers. These meetings have at times included contentious exchanges and Hamilton participating in an open Q&A would undoubtedly result in that. With the Riverview issue simmering and an intense controversy brewing about how the state’s Child Protective Services system is operating in the wake of the recent tragic deaths of two young girls allegedly killed by their caregivers, there would likely be more of that.

Today is the deadline for Clean Election candidates to qualify

We’re expecting two final candidates to qualify for taxpayer campaign funds today. Democratic lobbyist Betsy Sweet of Hallowell said last week that she plans on qualifying for funding under the Maine Clean Election Act. A spokeswoman for independent State Treasurer Terry Hayes said on Monday that she will also qualify. They would join Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, the lone candidate to have qualified so far.

Former Biddeford Mayor Donna Dion, who kicked off her campaign in January, said Monday that she won’t qualify the program, but she will stay in the Democratic primary as a traditionally financed candidate. Independent Ken Capron of Portland, the other Clean Election candidate, said he “did not put the energy” into qualifying, but that he’ll try to qualify for the ballot as an independent.

This funding is an immediate boon to campaigns. Gubernatorial candidates must get 3,200 contributions of $5 to qualify for the program, which gives primary candidates an initial payment of $400,000. Independents get $200,000 for the primary season. If those candidates make it to the general election, they get $600,000 automatically. Candidates can also submit more contributions to get more money for the primary and general elections. Today is only the deadline fo gubernatorial candidates to qualify. Legislative candidates have until April 20.

New LePage vetoes target state museum, hunters, solar projects

With the Legislature beginning to enact bills at a faster rate, the number of vetoes is also increasing. LePage sent four veto letters last week.

  • LD 1656 would allows veterans free admission to the Maine State Museum. LePage deems it unnecessary because the museum director has the authority to waive the fees but has not chosen to do so. LePage wrote that he has asked the museum’s board to research the issue and expressed frustration that “the state museum regularly advocates for more funding to grow its collection expand and upgrade storage and launch new programming but suddenly the museum represents that it can absorb incremental costs with no problem.”
  • LD 1823 would allow non-residents who own more than 25 acres to hunt on what has traditionally been residents-only day on the Saturday prior to the start of deer-hunting season. LePage says he does not agree with that and that a temporary exemption in place allowing that should end this year as scheduled.
  • LD 1816 would reduce the penalty for hunting deer over bait, but LePage wrote that is not a strong enough deterrent.
  • LD 1444 is a major piece of legislation that attempts to address long-fought battles over solar energy development in Maine. LePage had a number of objections centered on the fact that the bill would prevent a step-down of subsidies paid by ratepayers. [CORRECTION: An earlier version of this item failed to account for amendments made to LD 1444.]

Today in A-town

It’s officially crunch time in Augusta. The House and Senate are in this morning for the first Monday sessions of the year. This will be the norm for the next few weeks.

The Senate will take up a citizen-initiated bill that would raise taxes on some Mainers to  provide home health services to senior citizens and people with disabilities, regardless of their income. The bill is only up for reference to committee, but there could be drama considering the show put on in the House last week, when dozens of Republicans railed against the concept while Democrats voted against sending the bill to the Taxation Committee. It failed to go to the Taxation Committee on a 71-72 vote and ended up indefinitely postponed by a vote of 72-70. That kind of conflict simply on whether to allow a bill to have a committee hearing is rare, and House Republicans were outraged after the vote, accusing Democrats of trying to push the question to the November ballot without a hearing at which opponents could poke at the tax  and economic implications.

The House will consider the creation of the Task Force on Maine’s 21st Century Economy and Workforce to develop recommendations for targeted investments to alleviate workforce shortages. The task force would be asked to develop recommendations by Nov. 7 of this year — the day after the election.

Reading list

  • Maine voters await another court decision on ranked-choice voting. Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy heard arguments Friday in the latest tangle over the election system approved by voters in 2016. The latest legal question involves a wording conflict that could derail supporters’ hopes to use the ranked-choice system in the June primaries. Murphy expressed reluctance about involving the judicial system in a matter she said should be handled by the Legislature. But with a partisan divide in the State House smothering legislative action and a looming deadline to prepare ballots for overseas voters, Murphy’s decision could determine how Mainers will vote in June.
  • With a new $45 million tax break almost in hand, a major Maine employer announced layoffs. Bath Iron Works on Friday confirmed that 31 employees will be temporarily laid off because of “schedule disruptions,” according to shipyard president Dirk Lesko. But the timing of the layoffs — after the Legislature approved a tax break extension — irked Mike Keenan, president of the largest union at the shipyard, which employs about 5,700 people.
  • Tourists might have to find a new way to get to Bar Harbor this summer. Pen-Air lost a contract to fly passenger jets to Presque Isle, which makes it economically infeasible for the air carrier to make regular runs to Bar Harbor Airport. Bids to replace Pen-Air, which has provides service to Bar Harbor Airport since 2012, are due Thursday, but a deal will have to be reached soon to ensure that service is in place before the busy summer tourist season.

Is it Easter grass?

Like many of you, my wife and I prepared Easter baskets for our children over the weekend. Unlike many of you, it led to a quick but potent argument.

“The Christmas tinsel people are psyched that they could sell some more of it for Easter,” I said of the horrible, messy stuff that for some reason we give our children and then throw away minutes later.

“It’s not Christmas tinsel!” she said. “It’s totally different! What’s wrong with you?”

I never knew it was such a touchy subject. I am still trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. Here’s the soundtrack, though I dared only sing it in my head. — Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.