AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers in Maine’s lower chamber on Tuesday gave initial approval to two bills that would see the Legislature intercede in the operations of the Department of Health and Human Services, which Democrats accuse Republican Gov. Paul LePage of mismanaging.

Both bills target highly controversial operations at the department: The first, LD 1663, would require that the department not renew contracts for the state’s MaineCare nonemergency transportation system — which has been plagued with missed rides, long waits for appointments and other service failures — and instead start the system over from scratch.

The second, LD 1794, would cancel a $925,000, no-bid contract to assess the state’s welfare system made with the Rhode Island-based Alexander Group, which has missed deadlines for reports and had its objectivity questioned by critics both inside and outside Maine.

The bills advanced Tuesday in the House on party lines, with most Democrats supporting the measures and most Republicans opposing. The Senate already has approved LD 1663.

Democrats have cast both issues as mismanagement by the governor and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. Some members of the House on Tuesday, including Majority Whip Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, referred to LePage as a “bad CEO,” a new campaign catch phrase that has been rolled out in recent weeks by Democrat activists and staff.

“A vote today to continue this contract is a vote to continue wasting the taxpayers’ dollars,” said McCabe, in reference to the Alexander Group’s deal with the state. He called the Medicaid expansion report submitted by the group a “flashy campaign report for the chief executive.”

Republicans defended the Alexander Group as “uniquely qualified” for the job it was given because of the success seen by its chief, Gary Alexander, as head of public welfare in Rhode Island. There, Alexander successfully obtained a global Medicaid waiver, which gave the state total freedom in determining how to administer its publicly funded health insurance program.

They also defended Mayhew, and by extension, LePage. Several Republicans said the problems with the new MaineCare transportation system have been addressed by the department, which implemented a corrective action plan for the most troubled ride broker and already pledged not to renew its contracts.

“We all want the best for the individuals in this state who need services,” said Rep. Deborah Sanderson of Chelsea, the lead Republican on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “Has there been a rocky rollout? Yes. But to stand and accuse this administration, alone, of not being capable, that’s just wrong.”

Perhaps the most nuanced talking point came from Buckfield Democrat Terry Hayes, who split from her party to vote against both measures, not because she disliked with them, she said, but because they represented an overreach of legislative power.

“We have three different branches of government,” Hayes said. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to contract with the executive branch if the Legislature’s just going to step in and cancel their contract.”

The governor’s office has yet to weigh in on the bills, but LePage has staunchly stood behind Mayhew’s management of DHHS and has personally defended the Alexander Group against criticisms from Democrats and others. For that reason, many in the State House view vetoes from the governor as inevitable.

Follow Mario Moretto on twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...