November 17, 2013

Our View: Barring legislative testimony snarls state’s functioning

Gov. LePage’s order reining in communications between legislators and agency directors both fogs issues and feeds divisions.

To anyone still hoping that the animosity that pervaded Augusta during the last legislative session is a thing of the past, here’s a news bulletin: Nothing has changed.

click image to enlarge

It’s hard to see how Gov. LePage can ensure an open and accountable government by dictating the format of communications between the legislative and executive branches.

2013 Associated Press File Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

In a letter released Tuesday, Gov. LePage lashed out at Democratic opponents of his policy instructing department heads to communicate with lawmakers in writing, not in person.

The directive helps ensure transparency, the governor claims, as well as fostering a cooperative and “businesslike” approach to governing and preventing state officials from being “verbally assaulted or subjected to political showboating” by legislators at committee hearings.

It’s difficult to see how dictating the format of communications between the legislative and executive branches ensures an open and accountable government, or encourages lawmakers to work with agency heads and staff to forge policy. It’s all too easy, on the other hand, to find examples of how this no-appearances order slows proceedings and creates more divisions in the State House, to the detriment of both Maine’s government and Maine’s residents.

ISSUES MERIT SWIFT CLARIFICATION

Though LePage may not care that Democrats are frustrated with his new policy, he may want to consider that it’s keeping lawmakers from working toward high-stakes goals. Dealing with complicated issues calls for real- time give and take between lawmakers and agency heads and staff, not a slow-paced written Q&A process.

For example, a state task force faces a Dec. 4 deadline for identifying $40 million in savings from tax exemptions. If the panel can’t do its job, already-strapped Maine cities and towns face further revenue-sharing cuts.

So it’s not good news when the panel’s co-chair, state Sen. Anne Haskell, says that having to wait for written answers from the administration has slowed the task force’s work. It takes several weeks to hear back from the administration, and there’s no chance to ask follow-up questions, Haskell, D-Portland, recently told MPBN.

Then there’s the controversy over handing over the MaineCare transportation system to private brokers, a move that’s drawn thousands of complaints of late rides, no-show rides and long hold times for setting up rides.

While the governor has allowed some in-person testimony from administration officials, some of the most critical queries have been raised in writing. Asked whether Maine is considering following the lead of Vermont, which has kept its locally controlled system, state officials replied: “Twenty-eight states utilize a brokerage system.” This uninformative response demands clarification, but the new communications policy doesn’t allow for it.

MORE WORK FOR AGENCY HEADS, STAFF

LePage’s directive also makes his administration’s job harder. It’s not in the best interest of state agencies to try to enforce laws and policies into which they haven’t had any substantive input. That’s why, for years, it’s been the standard practice for department heads to take questions from lawmakers in person, at committee hearings.

Attending the committee hearings that LePage has discounted as a waste of time can pay off in several ways. Department heads and staff see, day to day, how existing laws are and aren’t working, and they can use their time in front of lawmakers to present informed proposals for change and provide credible input into other stakeholders’ suggestions.

And pragmatically speaking, the hearings give agency officials a chance to gauge the depth of support for a given proposal, including the fiscal and human resources available to carry it out, and prepare themselves accordingly.

While the governor has described committee hearings as a forum for Democrats to “berate” administrators, he hasn’t cited any specific examples. We’re betting there are few, if any. Legislative committees have lengthy agendas, so a collaborative approach, not an adversarial one, is critical to efficient and effective action at the State House.

(Continued on page 2)

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