April 23, 2013

Our View: LePage oversteps bounds with hearing officers

These officials act as judges and should follow the law, minus the governor's input.

While there is still a dispute about what exactly was said to a group of unemployment hearing officers at a now-infamous Blaine House lunch meeting last month, two things are certain.

click image to enlarge

The only instruction that Gov. LePage should be giving to the state employees who decide unemployment appeals is to apply the pertinent law to the facts of the case.

2013 Kennebec Journal File Photo/Andy Molloy

One is that Gov. LePage invited the people who decide unemployment appeals to the Blaine House and told them that he had heard reports that they were being too hard on employers when they decide cases. The other is, that never should have happened.

The governor has no more business telling hearing officers how to decide cases than he would assembling a group of umpires to tell them to call more strikes. The only appropriate instruction he should be giving to these officials is to apply the law to the facts and call them as they see them.

News that LePage may have tried to pressure the hearing officers has set off a chorus of criticism from several directions.

First, the Lewiston Sun Journal published quotes from unnamed attendees who said the governor was pushing them to be more friendly to businesses and less sympathetic to employees. The administration says that was not what the governor said at the meeting, but emails exchanged by department employees after the session, which were made public in response to a freedom of information request by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, support the anonymous quotes.

These reports may have been what led federal officials to come to Maine and complete an audit of the unemployment program, which is run by the state but is entirely federally funded.

The governor's defenders will predictably say that this is the governor's style. He is a plain-spoken boss who gruffly told some of his employees things they didn't want to hear.

But this is not a question of style. What's in dispute here is whether the governor went too far and interfered with what is supposed to be an impartial process. The governor may be the most powerful person in our system of government, but that doesn't mean that all state employees work for him. Career employees are responsible to the state, no matter who is in power, and that keeps government from turning into a machine that dispenses favors or punishment at the chief executive's whim.

Business leaders who have lost an unemployment appeal are not well positioned to judge whether the process has been fair. Federal records show that employers win most cases in Maine, indicating that the appeal process is already business-friendly. Having heard complaints about the process, the governor would have been wise to stay out of a place where he does not belong.

 

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