AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has instructed state department heads to stop appearing before the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.
If someone from the administration is asked to speak before the committee, according to the governor’s office, it will be LePage himself.
The administration’s order is in response to a clash Sunday, when the Appropriations Committee’s Senate chair, a Democrat, refused to let LePage address the members.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, condemned the order Friday, while LePage’s spokeswoman said it shouldn’t affect the committee’s work and the administration will provide all necessary information to lawmakers.
LePage’s order capped a week of squabbling between LePage and Democrats that started when LePage appeared before the Appropriations Committee and asked to address it about an emergency budget request from Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, turned down LePage’s request, a rejection the governor called disrespectful to his office. “The people of the state of Maine are being played for patsies,” LePage protested.
The incident led LePage to level allegations of Democratic “censorship” later in the week.
Eves said he learned that the administration had issued the no-appearances order earlier this week. Adrienne Bennett, the spokeswoman for LePage, confirmed that Friday.
“For me, it’s a concerning pattern of behavior from the governor that has included tantrums, threats and ultimatums,” Eves said Friday. “I really hope that this can just be one of the things the governor has said that he doesn’t follow through on.”
Eves said the committee’s work will be impeded if it cannot get the information it needs. The committee is working on the state’s next two-year budget, which would take effect July 1. Less than a month remains before this legislative session is set to adjourn.
The order could especially limit appearances by Mayhew and Sawin Millett, commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
But Bennett said it shouldn’t affect the committee’s process. Members can still speak to commissioners by phone and communicate by email. She said the administration will ensure that all information is given “in a timely manner.”
Bennett said the change is in direct response to the incident Sunday between the governor and Hill.
“It’s a two-way street,” she said. “If there’s someone to go before the committee, it will be the governor.”
Sunday’s incident helped spawn another conflict at the State House this week, over a television screen. The incident made national news.
On Thursday, LePage said he was leaving his State House office because of Democrats’ objections to a TV set up outside his office — in space controlled by the Legislative Council, a committee of leaders in the House and Senate.
The screen flashed a series of messages, including the number of days since LePage proposed his budget and the words, “What’s the holdup?”
In a meeting that morning, LePage told Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and Eves that he was moving out of the State House. He repeated that to reporters later in the day and worked from the Blaine House, although Bennett said his staff has no immediate plans to leave.
“If I have to remove myself from the toxic climate of censorship by Democrats in the State House to defend the taxpayers of Maine, then that’s what I will do,” LePage said in a prepared statement Thursday.
The TV screen hadn’t moved on Friday, but its display had changed. It repeatedly played a Memorial Day tribute featuring LePage and his wife, Ann.
The governor’s order to commissioners is quite uncommon, said David Cheever, Maine’s state archivist, and Mal Leary, a longtime State House reporter who works for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
Both longtime political observers said past governors have allowed commissioners to send staffers to testify in their place because of personality conflicts with committee members, but they don’t recall governors imposing blanket prohibitions on commissioners going before certain committees.
Leary said that appears to be a symptom of the governor and Democrats being particularly headstrong about their policy goals.
“They talk past one another,” he said. “They’ve got to start talking to one another.”
Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at: