The president of the Maine Senate was in a tropical paradise to celebrate his 30th wedding anniversary, but his thoughts drifted over 5,000 miles away, coming to rest on the State House and his split with its chief executive.

At 3 a.m. Hawaii time on Aug. 6, Winterport Republican Mike Thibodeau walked onto the balcony of his Honolulu hotel room and called John McGough, the chief of staff for Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

It was time to repair the relationship.

“I told him that we probably weren’t going to fix the situation on the phone that day, but we needed to work on correcting this,” Thibodeau recalled. “I desperately need the governor to be successful, our entire state does. We need to make sure he has a good working relationship with the Legislature.”

The relationship between LePage and lawmakers – and LePage and Thibodeau in particular – remains in tatters. In September, the governor told a reporter there was “hatred between the Legislature and the executive branch.” He has continued his attacks in weekly town hall meetings across the state, urging the audience to oust lawmakers who don’t support his policies, accusing some of caving to special interests before retreating to The Gin Mill, an Augusta bar.

The discord is doing more than disrupting the sleep of Thibodeau, the second-highest-ranked elected official in state government. It also threatens to undermine the second session of the Legislature, which begins in January, making it difficult for lawmakers to effectively debate and make decisions on issues that affect the state and its residents.

LIMITS ON INFORMATION

Historically, second sessions are marked by less policymaking and more posturing and partisan rhetoric, because the sessions take place just before lawmakers launch their campaigns for re-election.

On Oct. 2, the governor sent a letter to legislative leaders that could make the session even less productive. In the letter, LePage outlined limits on how department officials will provide information to legislative committees. He said questions about the impact of legislation, the performance and oversight of state programs or budget data must be submitted in writing – not by email – to the departments and the governor himself. If commissioners testify before committees, LePage wrote, they will only clarify the written responses.

Thibodeau worries that the governor’s edict threatens to throttle the free flow of information from agencies that lawmakers need to craft bills or oversee decisions on topics that range from the health of clam flats to changes in the tax code.

“They (commissioners and agency experts) are the conduit of information from the department back to the policymakers,” he said. “That’s true of every department, from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Public Safety.”

LePage has promised to submit few, if any, bills during the session. Instead, he said, he’s going to take his proposals, including a welfare overhaul and income tax cut, directly to voters by referendum. He has indicated that other proposals may take the same route, but he hasn’t specified which ones.

LePage, who has frequently compared lawmakers to children, said in a radio interview last month, “I’m going to let legislators do what legislators do without any oversight and see if the kids can get along, not fight against Daddy all the time.”

Thibodeau said he hoped to begin resolving the dispute when he called McGough from Hawaii. The call came a day after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of the Legislature and against LePage in a dispute over his efforts to veto 65 bills.

It was a devastating blow for LePage, who had spent the final weeks of the first legislative session lambasting lawmakers for making “a secret budget deal,” plastering several of their photos on a fake Christmas tree surrounded by rubber plastic pigs and vowing to veto all bills until the end of his term.

A WATERSHED MOMENT

LePage’s public criticism of lawmakers included Thibodeau, a longtime ally who is considered one of the most conservative members of the Legislature.

The bad blood between Thibodeau and LePage seemed sudden, brought forth by the governor’s political machine led by his daughter, Lauren. Thibodeau could not support the governor’s controversial tax overhaul, which was embedded in LePage’s two-year budget deal. When Thibodeau and Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves announced that they had reached a tentative agreement that jettisoned many of LePage’s proposals, including his tax plan, Lauren LePage responded with a series of robocalls in Thibodeau’s and other senators’ districts. The calls accused Thibodeau and other Republican lawmakers of conspiring with liberal Democrats on the state’s budget and supporting “illegal alien welfare.”

The robocalls appear to be a watershed moment in the dispute. Thibodeau never publicly criticized the governor, but his displeasure was no secret in Republican circles.

Nonetheless, Thibodeau said the governor’s chief of staff was “pleasantly surprised” by the Aug. 6 phone call. He said McGough hoped the two longtime allies could overcome their differences.

It hasn’t happened.

Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for the LePage administration, did not respond to requests for comment.

Thibodeau said he hasn’t met with the governor since April despite several requests.

Also, the governor has indicated in a number of public statements that he believes some Republicans are conspiring against him. When he told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network that he planned to govern via referendum rather than the Legislature, he said, “I am tired of legislators going behind your back to people and lying through their teeth because they don’t think you are going to hear about it.”

LePage’s belief that lawmakers in his own party are working against him has also surfaced several times during the Government Oversight Committee’s probe into the governor’s threat to pull funding from a private school that hired Eves, a political rival. He has twice asked for the recusal of Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the co-chairman of the oversight panel. On Oct. 21, LePage sought Republican reinforcements, calling on Republican leaders and members of the party to join his bid to oust Katz.

Katz, ironically one of the only Republicans to publicly support the concept of LePage’s tax plan, has refused. His decision has been publicly backed by Thibodeau, who said last week he continues to “have full confidence in Senator Katz’s integrity and in his ability to conduct fair and impartial hearings.”

Thibodeau downplayed the role of the oversight committee’s investigation in exacerbating the governor’s rift with the Legislature. However, Rick Bennett, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said the probe was likely affecting LePage’s view of the Legislature and his interactions with it.

“I think the governor views that he was raising legitimate questions about the sort of soft corruption in Augusta where people are suddenly eligible for jobs that they weren’t qualified for before,” Bennett said. “And yet the Legislature ends up investigating him, not the questions that he raised. They could have done both … which I think would have been appropriate.”

‘CLASH OF PERSONALITIES’

Bennett would not say if he’d been asked to mediate a truce between Thibodeau and LePage. However, he said the leaders’ relationship was a concern for the party, its activists and its donors.

“We’d like to get the governor and the Legislature aligned as much as possible while recognizing that they’re all independently elected,” he said.

He added: “Part of this is differences in policy. … Part of it, unfortunately, is a clash of personalities. You have very strong-willed people who feel that they were elected to do something and they have very strong views about that.”

Thibodeau said Mainers expect the governor and the Legislature to work together.

“Good public policy can’t be done through a referendum,” he said. “Good policy is literally dependent on a thousand different things. That can’t be done through the referendum process. We need to be working and sharing information and coming up with solutions to these very challenging problems that we face.”

He added: “If we don’t do a good job, it’s a reflection on the administration and the Legislature. People at home only care about whether their lives are improving or not.”