Gov. Paul LePage has used the power of his office to punish a political opponent and has threatened to withhold funding from a school that serves at-risk kids.
According to the Bangor Daily News and by his own admission, he has threatened to withhold significant funding for Good Will-Hinckley because they hired Speaker of the House Mark Eves. The school has now rescinded the offer of employment out of fear of the financial consequences.
The governor’s interference in the hiring process and the use of state funding for his own political purposes threaten the integrity of government and the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.
When the House and Senate reconvene on June 30, they have several options they could take to hold the governor accountable and improve state law.
The Maine Constitution is clear that it is within the power of each House to “punish by imprisonment any person, not a member, for disrespectful or disorderly behavior in its presence, for obstructing any of its proceedings, threatening, assaulting or abusing any of its members for anything said, done, or doing in either House.”
The governor cited particular votes of the speaker, work done in his capacity as a lawmaker, as the reason for his actions and was explicit that his attack was predicated on Eve’s role in the Legislature.
It could be argued that:
- The governor has treated the Legislature with disrespect.
- He has behaved in a disorderly manner and has obstructed its proceedings.
- And he has threatened and abused members of both the House and the Senate, with Eves being the latest and most egregious example.
The punishment outlined in the Constitution is imprisonment for the remainder of the Legislative session. That’s not an appropriate punishment, is silly on the surface, would accomplish nothing and would likely further a potential Constitutional crisis.
However, the vote to hold the governor in contempt would permanently stain the governor and whatever legacy he might imagine for himself.
It would also put the Legislature clearly on the record that it will protect its prerogative.
In addition, the Legislature has additional opportunities to decrease the governor’s discretion over taxpayer dollars and to formally investigate the governor’s actions.
The Legislature could immediately order an Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability investigation of the governor’s actions and the actions of Goodwill-Hinckley, which would produce an official record of the events and what happened.
Members could seek an investigation by the Office of the Attorney General and the US Attorney to see if any state or federal laws have been violated.
The Legislature could immediately reform the “miscellaneous” account in General Purpose Aid to education – and other areas in the state budget – to eliminate the governor’s ability to unilaterally make funding decisions without oversight and outside the legislative appropriations process. It’s his authority on this line item that would allow him to threaten Good Will-Hinckley.
The Legislature could immediately defund the governor’s contingency accounts, which he has used to fund pet projects. While some of these expenditures have been worthwhile, the governor is accused of abusing his discretion, and strict limits could be placed on his ability to unilaterally provide or deny state funding, including through the contingency account.
The Legislature could eliminate the governor’s expense account, which provides him with about $35,000 in unaccountable and untraceable state funds that he is allowed to use as he sees fit with no transparency. Instead of eliminating the account, they could also place accounting controls on it and require disclosure of its uses.
Finally, the House could impeach LePage and the Senate could try him. While the allegations against the governor are serious, it’s not 100 percent clear what the charges would be. We do not, at this point, have enough information to make a criminal determination and this boldest move has the potential to divide along party lines and further impair the good function of government.
While the passion of some members of the Legislature is clear – and justified – such action seems premature.
The governor has jeopardized the ability of government to function and is has inappropriately used taxpayer dollars to impede the function of the Legislature and to abuse its members.
If he is allowed to continue along this path, the independence of the legislative branch will be put at risk and the checks-and-balances on the unitary power of the executive will be damaged.
Maine’s Constitution and laws are ill-equipped to handle a governor like LePage who is willing to push legal and ethical boundaries. But the Legislature does have tools at its disposal.
The pressure on Republicans, particularly in the House, will be intense, but they should not be lured into thinking this is a partisan fight. It’s not.
They, by their actions as members of the Legislature, could find themselves in LePage’s crosshairs, with their jobs and their families on the line.
Members of the House and Senate, regardless of party, should stand together to protect the institution in which they serve.
No less than the integrity and independence of the Maine Legislature and the state are at stake.