House lawmakers could vote this week on whether to reprimand Gov. Paul LePage or start an investigation into whether some of the Republican governor’s controversial tactics merit impeachment.
The question of whether to censure LePage or pursue an unprecedented – and seemingly unlikely – impeachment of the governor could cast a partisan pall over Wednesday’s official start of the 2016 legislative session, although Democratic legislative leaders were mum Monday about how the process would play out.
“What a lot of folks have been interested in is really expressing outrage about the governor’s vindictiveness, and making clear that we don’t accept these things as politics as usual,” said House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, who is preparing a resolution to censure or reprimand LePage.
While Republican leaders say they want to focus on more pressing issues, House Democrats are pursuing the two separate strategies to punish LePage over his role in Good Will-Hinckley’s decision to rescind a job offer to Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves and other actions. The debate over how to proceed comes weeks after Attorney General Janet Mills – a Democrat who has clashed repeatedly with the governor – opted not to pursue a criminal investigation into LePage’s involvement in the Good Will-Hinckley hiring decision.
In addition to McCabe’s resolution, a small group of House lawmakers plans to introduce an impeachment order against LePage calling for a special committee to investigate eight separate charges against the governor. Those charges include: using state resources as leverage to force Good Will-Hinckley to rescind its job offer to Eves and to force out the president of the Maine Community College System, intervening in the unemployment compensation board, refusing to allow administration officials to testify before the Legislature and withholding bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program.
The order calls for the creation of a 13-member House Special Investigative Committee to look into “allegations of misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance and other misconduct” by LePage.
“We have been trying to govern around the governor for several years,” said Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, the lead sponsor of the impeachment order. “Now it has finally gotten to the point where we need to take action and hold the governor accountable for his actions.”
LePage’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. But House Minority Leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, dismissed the impeachment process as an attempt by Democrats to undo the results of the 2014 election.
“It’s been this way for five years,” Fredette said. “Paul LePage, House Republicans and Senate Republicans were sent here by the Maine voters to change the status quo. We’ve been getting pushback from Democrats ever since.”
Between the two options – censure or impeachment – the former appears much more likely to pass.
McCabe’s censure resolution – which he said he was still drafting on Monday – would only be considered in the Democratic-controlled House. A spokesman for the Senate Democrats said there are not any similar resolutions pending in the Senate at this time.
Impeachment, meanwhile, would require an affirmative vote in the House followed by a two-thirds vote to convict in the Republican-controlled Senate following what would likely be a lengthy impeachment trial. A Maine governor has never been impeached, and the Maine Constitution offers little guidance on the process other than saying that proceedings begin in the House and end in the Senate.
Fredette said the impeachment order is advanced by “fringe, liberal Democrats” and could set the tone for a difficult session. Additionally, he argued that the process is not spelled out in Maine law, thereby creating confusion. He planned to send a letter to Eves requesting legislative funds to bring the issue to court and criticized Democrats for failing to share details of the impeachment order with Republicans just days before a potential vote, although Democratic leaders stressed that they were not involved in the impeachment push.
“It’s not even clear to me if impeachment requires a majority vote or a super-majority,” Fredette said. “These are serious questions that I think will require clarification from a law court.”
The effort to impeach LePage is a long shot given the makeup of the Legislature, political dynamics within the State House and recent events.
LePage has given his critics plenty of ammunition over the past five years, but impeachment would require two-thirds support in the Republican-controlled Maine Senate in the event the effort got that far. While a federal lawsuit filed by Eves against LePage is pending, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney – both Democrats – opted last month not to pursue a criminal investigation into LePage’s role in the nonprofit Good Will-Hinckley’s decision to rescind its job offer.
“My office has carefully reviewed all available information and all relevant provisions of the criminal code, including ‘official oppression,’ and concludes that there is there is no basis at this time for us to pursue a criminal investigation,” Mills said in December.
The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee concluded that LePage’s threat to pull $530,000 in state funding from Good Will-Hinckley led to the organization’s decision to terminate Eves’ contract as president. But the committee as well as the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability were only charged with fact-finding, not with making a determination of wrongdoing.
As of Wednesday afternoon Chipman had three Democrats and one independent as co-sponsors, and was hoping to gain Republican co-sponsors. It was unclear Wednesday how or when the Democratic leadership – some of whom are believed to oppose a lengthy impeachment debate – will allow the measure to come to the House floor.
Rep. Jeff Evangelos, an independent from Friendship who is co-sponsoring Chipman’s impeachment order, hopes the group will be allowed to lay out its arguments on the House floor.
“It’s the only remedy in the Constitution to hold the governor accountable, and he has been accused of grossly abusing his power,” Evangelos said.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, a Winterport Republican who has repeatedly been on the receiving end of LePage’s ire since last winter, told The Associated Press that people are weary of the political bickering and want lawmakers to work together to move forward instead of rehashing old debates.
“Anything that is not going to directly affect the people who elected us in a positive way, then we should leave that at the door,” Thibodeau said.