Over the past several years, the number of public health nurses has fallen by more than half. Credit: Stock photo

When legislation becomes law, it becomes the duty of the governor to enforce it — even if he has objected to the legislation throughout the lawmaking process. Maine’s Constitution states without equivocation that the governor “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

So, when a bill becomes law, the Legislature and the public should be able to expect that the governor in power and his administration will make a good-faith effort to execute it.

Unfortunately, under Gov. Paul LePage, that expectation is no longer warranted.

Last year, over LePage’s veto, the Legislature passed a law requiring that the state restore its public health nursing program. The restoration, as outlined in the law, would involve hiring more than two dozen nurses who conduct home visits with vulnerable mothers and their newborn babies, work to control the spread of infectious disease, and serve as the boots on the ground in responding to public health emergencies. The law directed the Department of Health and Human Services to “widely post public notices” of the open positions and to make the requisite hires by March 1. The Legislature had maintained funding for the positions.

The law removed any ambiguity about the administration’s responsibility to maintain the public health nursing program. It removed any discretion the administration had to decide against hiring nurses to fill positions for which the Legislature had allocated funding.

But that didn’t matter.

The LePage administration flouted the law and missed the deadline, just as it had with deadlines contained in the voter-approved law to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income Mainers. After making some initial hires, the hiring stopped and the job postings disappeared.

The state senator who led the effort to restore public health nursing, Sen. Brownie Carson, has now filed suit against DHHS, asking the Kennebec County Superior Court to compel the agency to make the hires the law requires. According to messages and affidavits filed with the court, the administration halted hiring in February, and it has no plans to fully implement the law as long as LePage is governor. The lawsuit is now a sadly necessary step to ensure that duly passed laws are implemented.

“The new law requires DHHS to hire these nurses to protect the health of Maine people,” Carson, D-Harpswell, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “DHHS is clearly violating this law.”

Since DHHS and the LePage administration have proven themselves so undeserving of trust, the lawsuit doesn’t merely ask for a court order. It requests that the court appoint a special auditor to ensure DHHS follows any mandate that comes from the court.

The administration’s flouting of the public health nursing law is just the latest example of LePage and the executive branch throwing sand in the wheels of basic governance.

During his administration, LePage has held up the sale of voter-approved bonds. He’s attempted to veto bills after the deadline for vetoing them has passed. More recently, he’s stood in the way of the Medicaid expansion voters approved but which he’s consistently opposed. And he’s held up financial orders that would transfer money lawmakers have already budgeted to political candidates relying on the state’s public campaign financing system, a move that is a violation of the law, a judge ruled Thursday.

What sets the case of public health nursing apart from some of LePage’s other attempts to simply undermine basic governance is that the Legislature set a clear mandate for DHHS to act, along with a deadline, and the department didn’t act as the law prescribed. As a brief in Carson’s lawsuit reads, the plaintiffs “are seeking nothing more than what the law already requires.”

It’s a sad state of affairs when so little trust in the basic workings of government is warranted, but such is the state of Maine government under LePage. Among the most pressing priorities for Maine’s next governor will be to restore the public’s confidence that a law on the books actually means something.

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