Gov. Paul LePage, dissatisfied with the way the Legislature funded four programs and initiatives, has chosen to come up with his own funding scheme. His move may not be allowed under state law, and it runs afoul of the separation of powers, outlined in Maine’s Constitution, which gives the Legislature, not the governor, the power to appropriate funds to pay for government services.
Not to mention, it’s plain unnecessary.
LePage has no shortage of insults for legislators, but his contempt for them doesn’t negate their constitutional responsibility to write laws and fund programs. The governor had his opportunity to disagree with lawmakers when he vetoed these four bills. But, as the Constitution allows, lawmakers overrode his vetoes.
Still, LePage demanded a special legislative session to again discuss funding for the four bills that had become law. Legislative leaders said there was no need for such a session because they had identified funding sources for the bills, which is true in three of the four instances. So, this week, through an executive order, the governor said he will fund the programs through mechanisms of his own choosing. That endangers not only the four initiatives in question, but also the programs LePage will raid to come up with the needed funds.
In terms of direct consequences, the governor’s refusal to follow the Legislature’s directive on how to pay for raises to employees at the state’s mental health facilities is the most problematic. Rather than tap a salary account, which the Legislature called for and the governor has done to pay for raises for other state personnel, LePage said he may institute a hiring freeze. Or, his order says, the money may be taken from the state’s Low-Cost Drugs for the Elderly Program or the Fund for a Healthy Maine. He’s tried to raid the Fund for a Healthy Maine in the past and tried to simply eliminate the senior drugs program.
Staff shortages at the Riverview Psychiatric Recovery Center were so dire earlier this year that it was in danger of running afoul of a decades-old consent decree, the retired judge overseeing the agreement warned. The staffing shortages have eased, but retired Maine supreme court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen is worried about the consequences of LePage’s order.
“This is certainly no time for Riverview to be experiencing that kind of a self-imposed wound in its operations,” Wathen said. “Part of the reason that [Riverview] got into these vacancy rates they were concerned about three or four months ago is that the ordinary hiring process is so slow. … A hiring freeze, depending on who gets frozen, is a serious matter.”
There is no reason for further uncertainty at Riverview. Lawmakers passed a bill — and overrode LePage’s veto — to allocate $944,000 for the pay increases. Lawmakers and others agreed the pay increases were critical to attract and retain personnel needed to fill staff vacancies that were imperiling the safety and operation of Riverview.
Lawmakers didn’t “give” LePage the money, walking into his office with bags of bills and coins. But they did specify a funding source for the raises, following legislative protocol. The money, according to an amendment to the bill, would come from a salary account within the Department of Administrative and Financial Services that contains nearly $28 million. This is the same account LePage tapped to raise salaries for law enforcement officials.
“Imposing a hiring freeze while we’re dealing with a staff shortage is logic worthy of Alice in Wonderland,” Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said in a statement on Tuesday.
It is bad enough that the governor doesn’t engage with lawmakers and prevents his staff from working with them. Through his executive order, he’s now trying to undo the Legislature’s work and unilaterally change laws without the Legislature’s approval. Worse, his autocratic behavior creates unneeded and dangerous uncertainty around crucial state services.