AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills have been at odds for more than two years, and their stormy relationship is often the trigger for debates about crucial statewide issues such as fighting child abuse and expanding Medicaid.

Unfortunately for Maine, the fight has resulted in tangible consequences across the population such as positions being left unfilled and stalled efforts to make government function better. If this were boxing, Mills and LePage would be the top contenders for Democrats and Republicans preparing for a title fight.

In one corner, Mills has refused to represent LePage and the Department of Health and Human Services in two suits involving the dispensation of social services. In the other, LePage has refused to sign routine financial orders that would allow Mills to fill vacant positions in her office. That’s only one round in a protracted bout.

Beyond the ideological differences, the conflict includes a heavy dose of political shadowboxing. Mills has been mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, so anything LePage can do to tarnish her image helps his party prepare for the contest to elect his successor.

What is the fight about?

Mills won’t defend some of LePage’s initiatives in court. Specifically, Mills has refused to allow her office to represent the LePage administration in his challenge of a provision in the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires Medicaid coverage for low-income 19- and 20-year-olds. Mills also has refused to defend the LePage administration in suits brought by Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association over his initiative to cut off General Assistance funding to towns and cities that don’t screen out what he calls “illegal aliens.” Mills has contended that both postures are legally indefensible.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has weighed in. Earlier this year, the administration asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to rule on whether Mills’ opposition to the administration’s positions should disqualify her or her office from handling the cases. The court ruled in early March on LePage’s side, though Mills said the court’s finding was not surprising and shouldn’t have been heard by the high court to begin with. LePage also had asked the court to weigh whether he should have to have Mills’ permission to hire another attorney, but the court declined to rule on that question because it did not rise to the level of being a “solemn occasion.” In his biennial budget, LePage has requested $2 million over the next two years for his own legal fund.

Both combatants argue that the other abuses the authority of his or her office. Two days after LePage’s re-election, he told the Bangor Daily News that Mills was using her authority to sign off on the legality of rules developed by state departments to stymie initiatives with which she disagreed for political reasons. Mills disputed that statement.

LePage also challenged Mills in February over how the state should spend $21.5 million from a multistate class-action lawsuit against the ratings firm Standard & Poor’s. Mills said that because the money is supposed to be used for protection and education efforts under a court order that is attached to the settlement, the authority to spend it is hers.

LePage — who did not take issue with settlement spending by former Republican Attorney General William Schneider, who served during LePage’s first two terms as governor — is arguing this year that the Maine Constitution limits spending authority to the Legislature and that Mills is usurping that authority.

“Not only does her action overstep her authority, but it is also repugnant to the constitution,” LePage said in a letter to lawmakers.

LePage opposed Mills’ re-election as attorney general and said it would affect his relationship with the Legislature. Though the final tallies were not public, legislators in December re-elected Mills to a third term — her second with LePage as governor — despite Republicans having increased their presence in both the House and Senate.

“If her job is safe,” LePage said to the BDN, “then the Democrats are putting a line in the sand really early in the game.”

LePage wants the state’s attorney general elected by statewide vote, not by the Legislature. LePage said in January that he wants to replace the secretary of state’s position with a lieutenant governor and make the attorney general and treasurer’s offices elected by popular vote. Those changes would require major alterations to the Maine Constitution. Mills has not weighed in.

What are the ramifications?

LePage’s policy goals face battles before they become true initiatives. LePage’s more than four years in office have been defined by his willingness to take unconventional paths toward his goals, such as asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the Affordable Care Act. Mills’ opposition means that he faces a fight before his ideas even leave the State House. From the perspective of LePage and his supporters, Mills stands in the way of progress toward a more fiscally conservative government.

LePage uses his power to thwart Mills. Since November 2014, LePage has refused to sign what are usually routine financial orders that are necessary for Mills to hire attorneys for the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and an assistant attorney general in the litigation division. Mills said in January that she has quality candidates lined up and that LePage’s actions are slowing down the prosecutions of some of the state’s worst criminals. Earlier in 2014, LePage signed orders approving raises for a range of executive branch employees but refused to approve them for 100 attorneys, most of whom work for Mills.

They’re fighting? Really? How?

LePage’s surrogates are attacking Mills in public. In a March 24 news release from the House Republican Office, Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, who is a member of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, attacked Mills for what he called a “mismanagement of funds.”

The release alleged that Mills overspent a personal services line in her budget last year to the tune of $255,000, which Timberlake said was part of the reason that Republicans on the Appropriations Committee voted against letting Mills use existing funds to hire a Medicaid fraud investigator. LePage for months has refused to sign a financial order authorizing that funding.

The release further attacked Mills for insisting on merit and cost-of-living salary increases for members of her department, even though the Legislature appropriated funding for those increases two years ago and the rest of the executive branch had received them.

“The bottom line is, if the attorney general did not mismanage the funds she was allocated, and try to circumvent the governor’s authority to make up for that mismanagement, none of this would even be an issue,” said Timberlake in the release.

Timothy Feeley, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said Friday that Mills, Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson and LePage had a “cordial meeting” Friday morning regarding district attorneys’ budget issues.

— Mills corrected Timberlake in a letter to him later on the same day. That $255,000 in overspending was by the state’s district attorneys, whose budgets fall under Mills’ department but which she has little or no control over.

Why does this matter?

Mills could run for governor in 2018. Mills has not confirmed nor denied whether she is interested in a run for governor at the end of LePage’s current term, but her name comes up in virtually every conversation on that topic. Republicans are having those conversations, too, and eroding her stature, from a political perspective, can never start early enough.

Don’t expect the jabs and hooks to stop any time soon. This one’s going all 12 rounds.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.