Thursday, April 17, 2014
It's all downhill from here for state Sen. Dawn Hill. Whatever the Senate chairwoman of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee does between now and the end of her legislative career, it will pale by comparison to what she accomplished on Sunday.
The Democrat from York told Gov. Paul LePage to put a sock in it.
"What concerned me is that he looked very angry," recalled Hill one day after actually fulfilling many a Mainer's long-held fantasy. "His body language and his face -- he just looked angry."
Nothing unusual about that.
But unlike LePage's countless other tantrums over the past two-plus years, this one never got off the launch pad. And for that, I nominate Hill for the 126th Legislature's "Balance of Power Award" -- also known as "The Socky."
Late Friday, LePage dashed off a letter to Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves warning that "a crisis is looming that will affect our most needy citizens."
Unless the Legislature approves his proposed budget post-haste, he warned, the Department of Health of Human Services will "run out of money" on June 10.
LePage's letter naturally caught the attention of the Appropriations Committee, now in the home stretch of its five-month deliberations on the state's next two-year budget. Truth be told, the letter scared the bejesus out of the lawmakers -- primarily because they had no idea what the Big Guy was talking about.
So on Sunday, before committee members dove into yet another budget work session, they summoned DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett to translate LePage's letter and, more importantly, come up with a way to keep DHHS solvent beyond June 10.
All of which happened over the course of the 90-minute emergency session. In fact, Mayhew and Millett told the lawmakers that the shortfall cited by the governor was actually nothing new -- it was the same one the administration alerted the committee to in early May.
Better yet, as Millett assured the committee, fixing the problem is "not rocket science, nor is it impossible."
Enter the Big Guy.
Just as Hill was thanking everyone for working so cooperatively to solve the DHHS shortfall, LePage got up, planted himself in front of the microphone and declared, "I think that it is appropriate that I make a statement for the record."
Determined to avoid a repeat of LePage's last cameo before the committee, in 2012 (the Republican majority let him speak that time, but no one dared ask any questions), Hill calmly interrupted LePage before he could even get his blood pressure up. No disrespect, she told him, but this was no time for politics.
"No, there's no politics," countered LePage. "I'm a pragmatic person. I do not play politics."
(Right. And Liberace didn't play the piano.)
Hill, bless her, held her ground. The session was ending on a "high note," she said, and the committee still had to get back to work "you know, for the state of Maine and the people of Maine."
Protested LePage, "But the administration has not been entertained."
(Entertained? What was he expecting, the Radio City Rockettes?)
"The administration needs to sign off," LePage continued. "And he'd like to at least have a say so you know where he's coming from when you send something down because this time around, we do not have the luxury of a whole lot of time."
(Hard to say which is weirder about that quote -- the fact that LePage referred to himself as "he" or that he reduced his entire administration to a third-person, singular pronoun. Either way, that baby's headed for the archives.)
LePage then pushed away from the witness table in a huff. And it all might have ended right there had Hill, gracious to a fault, not suggested that she and the governor discuss his concerns "outside this meeting."
Re-enter the Big Guy.
"Thank you. Thank you very much," he snarled. "But outside this committee won't happen unless I have a way to speak."
(I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that of all the problems Maine now faces, LePage having "a way to speak" is not one of them.)
"I want to get on the record and this committee is not allowing it," LePage told Hill. "And it's unfortunate that the people of the state of Maine are being played for patsies."
With that, LePage got up, pushed the chair back into the table with a wee bit too much force and stomped out with a theatrical wave of the hand and a final, not-so-heartfelt "Thank you!"
Ladies and gentlemen, this is not good. With the end of the legislative session looming -- not to mention the real threat of a state shutdown come July 1 -- our governor has reduced himself to crashing committee hearings and calling his fellow Mainers "patsies" as if we were all bit players in one of those cheesy 1940s gangster movies.
Which brings us back to Hill, who backs down to no one. (Her dogged pursuit of the Maine Turnpike Authority, you'll recall, ultimately led to last year's imprisonment of former Executive Director Paul Violette for embezzlement.)
Hill could have killed LePage's microphone by flipping a switch at her desk -- but wisely thought better of it. She also has a 911 emergency button, but resisted that temptation as well.
Instead, Hill looked the Big Guy straight in the eye and, as nicely as she could, told him to stuff it.
More than anything else surrounding Sunday's showdown, Hill will long remember the silence that enveloped the room as LePage, perhaps for the first time in his life, opened mouth and dutifully inserted sock. (Stand down, LePage lovers. We're speaking metaphorically here.)
"My committee members told me afterward that they were in pain watching it, just wondering what was going to happen next," recalled Hill. "I was very polite, I kept telling him I meant no insult. And much to my surprise, he was somewhat polite back and he said, 'I'm out of here.'"
Paul LePage, silenced at last.
And the 2013 Socky goes to ...
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: