Cars travel on the Maine Turnpike Credit: Courtesy of CBS 13

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative panel on Wednesday opposed Gov. Paul LePage’s nomination of one of his former advisers to the board of the Maine Turnpike Authority, the quasi-state agency that the Republican governor has suggested eliminating.

Six Democrats and a Republican — Sen. Kim Rosen, R-Bucksport — on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee opposed the nomination of Jonathan Nass, who is the deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation and will become CEO of the quasi-state Maine Port Authority later this month. Two Republicans on the panel backed Nass.

LePage nominated Nass, a former senior policy adviser to the governor, to replace the turnpike board’s current chairman, retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen. There was confusion in a Wednesday hearing about whether Wathen had reapplied for his position.

Andrew Bracy, an adviser to the governor, said he was unsure if Wathen reapplied. But Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills said Wathen told him that he reapplied in January and never heard back. Wathen said after the hearing that he reapplied at the request of Scott Van Orman, LePage’s director of boards and commissions.

During the hearing, Democrats on the committee aggressively questioned Nass about whether he agreed with the governor on merging the turnpike authority with the transportation department.

Nass never directly answered those questions, saying it’s up to the Legislature to decide. But he said the turnpike’s ability to collect tolls provides a more stable funding mechanism than the transportation department’s varied revenue stream. That has been the main argument of opponents of merging the authority with the department.

“What I will tell you is that I will serve on that board and seek the best interests of that authority,” he told the committee. “I think that’s the responsibility of a board member on any board.”

After the hearing, Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, the committee’s co-chair, said it seemed that LePage was trying to “stack the deck” in state government to cement his agenda — including eliminating the authority — before he leaves office in early 2019.

“This, in my view, is an attempt to do an end run around the committee and the policy we have decided upon,” McLean said.

Nass said after the vote that he was “eminently qualified” and it was “a real travesty” that the committee “decided to put politics over policy.” In an email, LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said “there is no doubt that Nass was qualified” and “whether other qualified people also could have been nominated is not relevant.”

Nass was one of two LePage nominees to be rejected in transportation committee votes Wednesday. Six Democrats and Sen. Ronald Collins, R-York, the committee’s co-chair, voted against former state Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, who was nominated for a position on the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

The Maine Senate will still have to consider both nominations, but Wednesday’s committee vote virtually sinks them. The upper chamber will need a two-thirds vote to override the panel’s rejections, and it’s split 18-17 between Republicans and Democrats.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...