Time is running out for legislative leaders who want to avoid what they fear would be a lengthy and divisive impeachment process.

In just over three weeks, lawmakers will return to Augusta and face the question of what to do about a governor who has used his power to interfere with the operations of an independent nonprofit and punish a political foe.

If a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers can’t come together before that date and present a meaningful sanction against the governor that limits his ability to misuse his authority, impeachment will be the only option.

No alternative has been floated so far, even though there has been plenty of time to work one out.

Over six months, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee and the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability have carried out a painstaking investigation. They examined whether Gov. Paul LePage threatened to pull state funding from Good Will-Hinckley – a social service agency that serves at-risk youth with programs that include a charter school – if it didn’t get rid of its new executive director, Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.

The most damning evidence against the governor came from the man himself. In a news conference last June, LePage was asked if he had threatened to withhold funds if Eves stayed in his job.

“Yeah, I did! If I could, I would! Absolutely; why wouldn’t I?” he responded. “Tell me why I wouldn’t take the taxpayer money, to prevent somebody to go into a school and destroy it. Because his heart’s not into doing the right thing for Maine people.”

In other words, faced with the charges, the governor pleaded, “Yeah, so what?”

There are clearly some legislators who agree that what the governor did was no big deal.

“This stuff does happen, said Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, a member of the Government Oversight Committee. “There’s strong-arming that goes on. Politics is dirty. At least he has the guts to go out and say it.”

Sanderson is probably not alone, which is precisely why the Legislature should act.

What LePage did is not normal behavior, but if the Legislature doesn’t respond with force, it will become normal for this chief executive and all who follow him.

The state of Maine works with thousands of contractors. Do they all need to check with the governor before they decide who to hire? Or will that be unnecessary because board members will just try to guess which job candidates might please or displease the resident of the Blaine House?

That kind of thinking is going on among nonprofit boards in Maine right now, and it’s going to be destructive unless the agencies can be assured their independence will be honored.

LePage loyalists have tried to defend the governor, saying his attack on Eves was justified because the speaker was the wrong man for the Good Will-Hinckley job. Lawmakers should not let that precedent stand. Substituting the governor’s gut instinct for the collective judgment of a legally constituted board is an invitation for corruption and cronyism.

There is another price to be paid for accepting the governor’s “strong-arming” as a legitimate way to make policy.

As Government Oversight Committee Chairman Roger Katz observed Thursday, nearly every member of the Legislature has to earn a living, and they shouldn’t have to worry about whether the full power of state government might be used to put them out of work. “We can’t do our jobs (as legislators) if every vote, every floor speech is viewed through the lens of ‘what if?’ ”

The Legislature’s response should be swift and substantial, one that not only criticizes the governor’s actions but puts real limits on his power to pull this kind of stunt again.

For it to work, it should also be bipartisan, to show that this is not just a political vendetta.

If the leadership can’t accomplish that, articles of impeachment and a possible trial in the Senate will be the only choice available for lawmakers who understand that LePage’s behavior is leading Maine down a dangerous path.

Legislation that would begin the impeachment process will be ready when the Legislature convenes. The time for alternatives is running out.

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