AUGUSTA — The long-simmering feud between Gov. Paul LePage and Attorney General Janet Mills resurfaced Tuesday when LePage made a rare appearance before the Legislature to testify against a bill that would strip his office of the power to approve staff pay raises or new hires in the Attorney General’s Office.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, is a response to LePage’s delays in signing off on salary increases or hiring of replacement workers – salaries all approved by the Legislature for employees working for Mills. The bill would eliminate the requirement that the governor sign off on salaries in the Attorney General’s Office that already have been approved in the state budget.

The bill, supported by Mills, is the latest in a long series of disagreements between the Republican governor and the Democratic attorney general. The bill also would allow more financial independence for Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, also a Democrat.

A similar bill passed in the Legislature in 2015, but was vetoed by LePage. Republicans in the Legislature upheld the governor’s veto and the bill died.

This bill could face a similar fate, but that didn’t stop LePage from threatening the Legislature with a lawsuit if it passed the measure, arguing that it infringed on the governor’s powers as spelled out in the state constitution.

LePage also accused Hill of introducing the bill as retaliation against him for bringing a lawsuit last week against the attorney general for refusing to provide legal support for his policies. He urged the Legislature to let that case play out in the courts before acting on Hill’s legislation.

Hill, however, noted that her bill was introduced before a legislative deadline in January, well before LePage sued Mills.

LePage told lawmakers on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee that he had intentionally slowed down hiring in state government in order to save money and build up a fund that he said is critical to the state being able to negotiate employment contracts with state workers. The governor said he also gave close scrutiny to financial orders that boosted state employees’ pay.

“We are going into a negotiating year and there is zero money in the fund to negotiate the union contract. You cannot negotiate in good faith if you have no money (in the fund),” LePage said.

He said salary increases for state corrections workers, law enforcement and workers at the state’s secure mental health hospital were approved by the Legislature over his veto, thereby depleting the fund and forcing him to scale back hiring to replenish it. His administration, however, advocated for the pay raises for state law enforcement, including the Maine State Police, although LePage vetoed the budget that authorized the pay increases.

The governor said he paid particularly close attention to Mills’ requests, but that he was tough on all state agencies.

“I am an equal opportunity conservative,” he said.

DID GOVERNOR STALL AG HIRING OVER FEUD?

Mills’ office was given extra scrutiny because she overspent her budget by $255,000 in 2013, LePage said. Lawmakers and a spokesman for Mills, Tim Feeley, later noted that the spending overage actually occurred in 2015 and was the result of various district attorneys having less attrition than expected.

The conflicts between LePage and Mills also may have played into the extra scrutiny for AG hires and raises.

Feeley provided the Portland Press Herald with a copy of a hiring authorization form for an assistant attorney general position signed by LePage on Dec. 5, 2016. The form includes a handwritten memo from LePage to the state’s budget officer, Melissa Gott. “Last one – until we work out some level of legal services for Gov.’s office,” LePage wrote. LePage ultimately signed the financial order to fill that position on March 13 and it was the last one, Feeley said.

According to the bill’s summary, it would remove the requirement that compensation set by the attorney general for assistant attorneys general, staff attorneys, the secretary to the attorney general, district attorneys, and deputy and assistant district attorneys be approved by the governor. The bill also would allow the attorney general and secretary of state more control of finances and expenses within their departments.

Hill, a member of the committee, submitted written testimony that stressed the pay increases are included in the state budget, which is approved by the Legislature and is a legal document the governor does not have the option to ignore.

“We pass laws expecting they will be followed by the citizens of our state,” Hill wrote. “There should be no question that the chief executive and the rest of state government will follow those same laws.”

Mills, in her written testimony on the bill, said her role as the state’s top law enforcement officer was being compromised by LePage, and that the scope of the work facing her office depends on qualified and fairly compensated employees. Mills also said routine financial orders requiring LePage’s signature were left unsigned and “sit idle on the governor’s desk without being returned, or without being returned for a long time, without any explanation.”

Mills said the delays led to increased accounting errors and state positions going unfilled.

NOT INTENDED TO GIVE LEPAGE veto power

The conflict over hiring and raises is the latest in a series of disagreements between LePage and Mills, a prominent Democrat who has said she is considering a run for governor in 2018.

LePage filed a civil lawsuit May 1 in Kennebec County Superior Court charging Mills with abuse of power for refusing to provide legal representation for the state at LePage’s request in a series of federal lawsuits or other court actions. According to the Associated Press, LePage has spent close to $400,000 of taxpayer funds on lawsuits that Mills has refused to join, including a 2014 failed appeal to the courts over the federal government’s denial of LePage’s request to remove 6,000 young adults from the state’s Medicaid program. Mills told the governor the case had “little legal merit” and wouldn’t be a good use of money.

After Tuesday’s hearing, Hill said it was the first time lawmakers had heard LePage’s explanation about the salary-negotiations fund being depleted.

However, LePage raised the issue in a 2016 executive order, in which he expressed concern that lawmakers had passed a bill to raise wages for mental health workers but hadn’t funded it.

“Continued depletion of the salary plan to fund arbitrary wage increases to some employees inhibits the executive branch’s ability to negotiate in good faith during the next round of collective bargaining with all unionized state employees,” LePage wrote in the order.

Hill said having the governor sign off on salary increases or the financial orders needed to hire new staff was more of an internal bookkeeping function aimed at protecting taxpayers. “It’s not to give him another veto,” she said.

LePage’s testimony Tuesday came during a work session on the bill. The bill was immediately tabled, and another work session on the bill has yet to be scheduled.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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