Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, speaks at a meeting of the Government Oversight Committee in March. Katz, the committee’s Senate chair, said Thursday that, “It is impossible to make good public policy without dialogue from the administration.” Staff photo by Joe Phelan

AUGUSTA — For the second time in two months, the Legislature’s watchdog committee voted to subpoena a member of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to come before it to answer questions about state human services programs.

The Government Oversight Committee is reviewing the use of state and federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds and asked Bethany Hamm, director of the Office of Family Independence in the state Department of Health and Human Services, to come before it Thursday.

LePage, in a letter to the committee’s staff, said Hamm already had provided significant information to the staff and would be available to meet again. But the governor said he did not want Hamm to appear before the committee itself and be subjected to “the inevitable politics of the committee.”

In June, the committee voted to subpoena DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton after the administration failed to send anyone from DHHS to a committee meeting on an ongoing investigation of the agency’s child protective services system. The system is under scrutiny after the deaths of two young girls – 4-year-old Kendall Chick of Wiscasset and 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy of Stockton Springs – since December.

After the subpoena vote, Hamilton indicated he would appear voluntarily, so the subpoena was never issued.

Government oversight is the only committee in the Legislature with the authority to issue a subpoena to compel a witness to appear. The panel has taken that action more frequently since LePage took office and issued a directive saying his administration would only answer questions from legislative committees in writing.

But Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the Senate co-chair of the oversight committee, said having face-to-face discussion with key state government staff was critical to the Legislature’s ability to effectively adapt and adjust state government to serve the needs of Mainers.

“We are just trying to do our job,” Katz said, “and it is impossible to make good public policy without dialogue from the administration. It’s like trying to do your work with one hand tied behind your back.”

Katz noted that LePage is often critical of dysfunction in the Legislature, but he said the governor is contributing to that dysfunction by refusing to participate in the legislative process.

“It’s been a problem for eight years,” he said.

‘THIS HAS BEEN THE GOVERNOR’S POLICY’

Committee members, including Katz, said they disliked having to use the force of law to gather information from state agencies, but would continue to do so if that was their only option.

“We hate to use that power just in and of itself,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. A veteran lawmaker and former secretary of state, Diamond said the use of subpoena power was rare before LePage took office, although it had been used occasionally.

Asked Thursday why Hamm, the DHHS official, did not appear before the committee, DHHS spokeswoman Emily Spencer said in an email that “this has been the governor’s policy.”

She provided a three-page letter that Hamm had sent to the committee Wednesday answering written questions about the TANF program, which was analyzed in a recent report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the watchdog agency directed by the oversight committee.

Spencer also provided LePage’s letter to OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft, in which he explained his position that he did not want Hamm to meet with the committee, but said she would be available to meet with OPEGA staff to answer further questions if necessary “without the overlay of political gamesmanship.”

OPEGA issued a report in June detailing the accumulation of a $110 million surplus in TANF, a program that provides cash assistance and vouchers for transportation and child care for low-income residents. The report linked the surplus to changes in the program and stricter enforcement of a 60-month lifetime limit on benefits prescribed by the federal government.

Enrollment in TANF programs declined from 34,247 in 2007 to 10,902 in 2017, the report says.

PREVIOUS EFFORTS TO USE FORCE OF LAW

During an initial hearing on the report in July, committee members wanted more information about what has happened to the people who are no longer receiving benefits from the program. The committee wanted more details on hardship waivers, time limits and the operation of the ASPIRE program by a new private contractor. Hamm responded to some of those questions in the three-page letter she sent to the committee.

However, lawmakers on the panel, which is made up of six Republicans and six Democrats, had additional questions for Hamm and DHHS that they said would benefit from an open exchange and dialogue. In particular, the committee wanted to know how the $110 million in unused TANF funds would be spent in 2018.

The vote to subpoena Hamm was the committee’s latest effort to obtain information by force of law from the administration. Several previous efforts also involved DHHS or its agencies, including in 2014, when the committee was probing a document-shredding scandal at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Subpoenas also were issued in 2015 to compel senior members of LePage’s office, including Cynthia Montgomery, then the governor’s legal counsel, and Aaron Chadbourne, a senior policy adviser, to testify about the administration’s involvement in the firing of then-Speaker of the House Mark Eves, D-Berwick, from the Good Will-Hinckley School in Fairfield.

The school offered Eves the job as president, but withdrew the offer after LePage threatened to withhold $530,000 in state funding. Eves sued LePage over the action in federal court and lost, although an appeal is pending. Montgomery and Chadbourne have since left the administration.

‘IT’S JUST SLOWING DOWN THE PROCESS’

Looking ahead, the committee on Thursday also contemplated having to use subpoena power to compel public testimony from LePage administration officials on a package of bills that LePage has said he is introducing to address problems in the state’s child protection system. But members noted that having to do so would slow the process of creating policy to address dangerous shortcomings in the system.

“Everything that we have been doing takes two steps,” said committee member Rep. Jennifer DeChant, D-Bath. “Two steps to get to the conversation. It’s just slowing down the process, and perhaps that is the intent because I am not really sure that this is the lion’s den.”

On the issue of child protective services, Diamond, the Windham legislator, said lawmakers couldn’t afford to waste any more time, but if forced they would continue to use the committee’s legal authority to gather information.

“If that’s the path we have to follow, we will follow that path,” Diamond said. “We have kids’ lives at stake, for heaven’s sake, we need to pursue this aggressively.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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