December 24, 2013

Our View: End of testimony ban hopeful sign in Augusta

Reviving the practice of allowing Cabinet heads at hearings will make it easier to make policy and address big issues.

Legislative observers, lawmakers and anyone else interested in the efficient functioning of Maine’s government got a Christmas gift early. Last week, citing an agreement with legislative leaders on improving State House decorum, Gov. LePage lifted a policy instructing department heads to communicate with lawmakers in writing, not in person.

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The lifting of the no-appearances order isn’t a magic bullet, of course.

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A productive relationship between the executive and the legislative branches of government is critical to ensuring accountability and collaborative policymaking. And given the number of challenges that legislators face in the shorter second session, anything that expedites work in Augusta is something for which to be grateful.

The communications order – a change from years of standard practice in Augusta – was put in place this summer. The governor has acknowledged that the move was prompted by his having been barred from an Appropriations Committee work session. However, he’d rationalized the new policy as an effort to encourage transparency and professionalism and to keep state officials from being “verbally assaulted or subjected to political showboating” by lawmakers.

Gov. LePage has yet to note any specific examples of agency heads having been berated. But the impasse continued until last week, when the governor received a copy of a letter sent to the whole Legislature by legislative officials from both parties, asking for lawmakers to treat all members of state government with respect. Considering that the governor wasn’t likely to budge regarding his order, the letter was a wise and strategic move.

The drawbacks of the governor’s directive have played out most visibly in regard to the operations of the state Department of Health and Human Services, Maine’s biggest agency.

Commissioner Mary Mayhew didn’t attend a Dec. 10 Health and Human Services Committee meeting. Instead, she submitted written answers to questions on topics like the troubled MaineCare rides program, a controversial $925,000 review of Maine’s welfare system and the loss of federal funding for a state psychiatric hospital.

These are high-stakes issues that affect both Maine taxpayers and thousands of the state’s neediest residents. Written Q&A sessions between lawmakers and agency officials don’t speed their resolution – just the opposite, because of the lack of back-and-forth dialogue and real-time sharing of information.

The lifting of the no-appearances order isn’t a magic bullet, of course. Partisan tension has built up over too long a time to be dispelled easily. And state agency heads and legislators alike still have a lot of work to do come January. But good governing requires compromise and coalition-building, and those efforts proceed more easily in an atmosphere that promotes cooperation over polarization.

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