LePage scolds lawmakers in letter saying he would meet with them

In a stark departure from past practice, Gov. Paul LePage has kicked off the new legislative session with a personal visit to a legislative committee and he intends to do more — maybe.

LePage limits his appearances before committees to high-stakes issues, and those visits became even more infrequent after Democrat Dawn Hill, then Senate chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, would not let him speak during a 2013 budget committee meeting.

That “not on speaking terms” impasse escalated last year, when LePage declined to deliver a State of the State speech to legislators, instead sending a scathing letter that labeled some of them socialists.

The Republican governor also at times has discouraged or forbidden commissioners and top administration officials from speaking to legislative committees, sometimes for months on end.

This year marks a departure from that so far. In addition to executive branch members being present at some early committee hearings of the new Legislature, LePage attended an Appropriations Committee meeting Wednesday morning. I wasn’t there but lawmakers said he discussed some of the elements in his supplemental budget proposal.

According to an undated letter LePage wrote to chairs of the budget and health and human services committees, the governor has offered to attend an upcoming committee hearing to discuss his controversial proposal to build a forensic mental health unit in Bangor, on state land near the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center. LePage originally planned for the facility, which he intends to contract with a private entity to run, to be built in Augusta but changed course after encountering resistance from Democratic lawmakers who refused to sign off without public legislative hearings.

LePage offered to attend a committee meeting to answer questions from lawmakers, but with caveats.

“I would be happy to personally explain at the next joint hearing of your committees why I believe Bangor is a better location than Augusta at this point,” wrote LePage. “However, I ask that you refrain from asking questions that you already know the answer to or questions that have already been answered by Commissioner Mary Mayhew and her staff. I have no interest in participating in the usual dog-and-pony show that the Legislature likes to put on for the media and the lobbyists. I am focused solely on building this facility in Bangor as quickly as possible so those suffering from mental illness can be properly cared for.”

Lawmakers rescheduled the hearing from this week to Monday but according to Mary Erin Casale, a spokeswoman for Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, LePage then said he could not attend on Monday. Casale said the hearing has been moved to Tuesday, when the committees were scheduled to convene anyway.

UPDATE (10:30 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2017): Peter Steele, LePage’s communications director, said in an email to the BDN Thursday morning that lawmakers asked LePage to submit his case for building the forensic unit in Bangor in writing. “He will do that,” said Steele.

LePage and other administration officials have argued that they have adequately answered lawmakers’ questions — including in recent one-on-one meetings Mayhew has held with them, according to LePage. However, some lawmakers from both parties are intent on public hearings to discuss the funding and, just as important for some, the details of how the private company would run the facility. The LePage administration is expected to issue a request for proposals soon, which might answer some of those questions.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are expected to debate ways to compel the administration to put its Bangor proposal through the legislative process. Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta and Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook — who are both members of the Legislature’s budget committee — have both submitted bills that have to do with the care of forensic mental health patients in Maine.

Whether or not the governor attends this committee hearing or that one is decidedly mired in bureaucratic weeds, but the tug of war between the executive and legislative branches when it comes to approval and oversight of this project illustrates a standoff that has been under development for years. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Pot bill deliberations progressing, really, really slowly: The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee spent a second day Wednesday discussing a bill that would delay the implementation of certain portions of the successful citizen-initiated referendum to legalize recreational marijuana. The committee is trying to forward recommendations to the full Legislature in time for votes next week. The conversation primarily centers on the implementation of a retail sales system, though lawmakers have raised a number of concerns that could prove to be pitfalls later. In its current form, the bill would not interfere with the legal use and possession of pot beginning Jan. 30.
  • Veterans pressuring Trump on Obamacare: A group of veterans, including Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, will gather today in Augusta in an effort to pressure President-elect Donald Trump not to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The press conference kicks off the “Save My Care Bus Tour,” a two-month cross-country road show.
  • Environmentalists pressuring Collins and King on EPA nominee: The Natural Resources Council of Maine and some of its allies will hold a news conference today at Portland Public Library to apply pressure to Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King to oppose Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency. They question Pruitt’s stance on climate change and argue that, if confirmed by the Senate, the Oklahoman would “threaten the health, economy, and natural resources of Maine and the nation.” The event is scheduled to start at 11:30 a.m. King announced Thursday morning that he would vote against the nomination.
  • Finance legend returning to the fray: Senate Republicans announced Wednesday that they have hired former lawmaker and long-time public servant Sawin Millett to advise them on issues related to the two-year state budget bill that is currently under consideration. Millett, who is semi-retired, has served in the cabinets of governors dating back to James Longley, including a stint as LePage’s finance chief. As a member of the House of Representatives, Millett spent years on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. Millett, a Republican, is respected by lawmakers of all stripes at many levels. Learn more about him in this profile published by the Bangor Daily News last year.
  • State of the State in person or by letter? Last year, Gov. LePage’s relationship with the Legislature had grown so toxic that he broke from tradition in which governors address the Legislature about the state of the state of Maine. LePage delivered his remarks in writing. In today’s Senate Calendar is a letter from Gideon and Senate President Mike Thibodeau that invites LePage to deliver his address in person on Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. I’ve asked the administration what LePage plans to do but I’m not optimistic that I’ll receive a response. Regardless, we’ll keep you posted with developments.
  • Their biggest audience ever: Middle and high school students in the Pride of Madawaska band are in Washington, D.C., today to perform today at the Lincoln Memorial. They are one of only 12 bands that will perform at the inauguration concert and the only one from Maine. The band will play Maine’s official march, “Dirigo March,” “Born Free,” and “Main Street America.”
  • Inauguration coverage: Tomorrow is the first day of Republican Donald Trump’s presidency, which will be marked by inauguration ceremonies that will be closely watched around the world — including here in Maine. The Bangor Daily News will host a live blog throughout the day Friday that will keep you abreast of developments and reactions from around the world. Check tomorrow’s Daily Brief for details about how to follow along. In the meantime, throw me an email at ccousins@bangordailynews.com if you have an inauguration event going on or other items to add to our coverage.

Reading list

If you want a private concert with The Boss, run for president

A staffer in the Maine Senate remarked to me recently that he’s been a little disappointed at times by Daily Brief soundtracks. I’ll admit it: the soundtrack choice sometimes is driven by music that is really bad but prescient. Occasionally, good music and relevance combine. That’s the case today.

Bruce Springsteen, a long-time supporter of President Barack Obama, performed a private concert for outgoing White House staffers last week. The song Springsteen personally dedicated to the Obamas is today’s soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins


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.