During her 2018 campaign for governor, Janet Mills said her administration would put an end to the unnecessary drama and unproductive acrimony that marked the relationship between the Legislature and her predecessor, Paul LePage.

Last week she broke that promise.

Mill’s top labor official, Commissioner Laura Fortman, was a no-show last week at a legislative committee hearing focused on the state’s embattled unemployment benefits system.

Weeks after problems first surfaced, thousands of Mainers still cannot access much-needed benefits. Amid record-breaking numbers of unemployment caused by the response to the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers from both parties continue to hear from constituents who have spent weeks trying to navigate a system seemingly designed for them to fail.

The lawmakers had questions, but Fortman was not there to answer them, nor was anyone else from the department.

There is disagreement over whether the governor’s office informed legislators that Fortman would likely not attend the hearing.


But there is no doubt that by telling Fortman to blow off the hearing, Mills was robbing lawmakers of their ability to conduct oversight of the executive branch and to get the answers their constituents deserve.

As Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, pointed out, withholding commissioners from legislative scrutiny is straight out of the playbook of LePage, who did so as a longstanding matter of policy.

Just like LePage, Mills even criticized lawmakers for what she said was disrespectful treatment of Fortman by legislators last month, as if the labor commissioner should not expect tough questions about the unemployment system’s failures at a time of record unemployment.

The system’s initial failures were nearly unavoidable. The new system, known as ReEmploy ME, was rushed into place late in the LePage administration while it was still full of bugs — it couldn’t even handle the claims being filed at the time, when there was record low unemployment.

Then the pandemic hit, and the state was dealing with claims like it had never seen before. After 2019 saw just 35,000 claims total, more than 100,000 were filed from mid March through early May alone.

As a result, many unemployed Mainers had trouble filing claims and getting answers to their questions. Widespread fraud, apparently directed by organized crime, also has strained the system.


It has been an unprecedented challenge, and the department has had to adjust on the fly. They have done so better than other states, though not as well as others. Maine has now distributed hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits to tens of thousands of claimants.

But problems persist for thousands of Mainers. They deserve answers, as do the lawmakers who represent them, and who serve as a check on the governor’s power.

These are the same lawmakers who have largely left out the response to the pandemic, control of which was given for good reason to the governor’s office. They shouldn’t be left out anymore.

With her response to lawmakers’ legitimate questions, Mills showed the contempt for their duties that we came to expect from LePage. It wasn’t helpful then, and it’s not helpful now.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.