“How ba-a-a-ad can I be? How bad can I possibly be?”
This tuneful line from the animation of Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax” seems to have become the theme song of the LePage administration. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew was singing along as she ripped a strip off the legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.
Not only has she said no to committee appearance requests, she has said, in a manner of speaking, hell no. The GOC is attempting to examine the status of the Riverview Psychiatric Center, a facility that has been under the scrutiny of the court and the federal government for years.
The governor has not made it easy for the legislative and executive branches to work together. In a policy directive this fall, he has required the legislature to say “Governor, may I?” when they want his cabinet members to appear before legislative committees.
Here’s how that goes. The GOC requested the attendance of Riverview Superintendent Jay Harper. The governor said they should really be working with Commissioner Mayhew. Okay, said the committee, then let’s have Mayhew. The governor’s response? No.
Further, commissioners will respond only to committee questions in writing, and if they do appear before a committee, they are limited by their boss to clarifying written responses previously provided. It is simply not possible to get any work done this way.
Mayhew was offered two dates for a January meeting. Before she consented to appear on Jan. 22, she let loose in a stunner of a statement. “The expectation that the commissioner of any government agency drops what they’re doing to answer the beck and call of the Government Oversight Committee is ludicrous… .”
She called it “unfathomable” that the committee might issue a subpoena to command her attendance. She said the GOC was focused on “casting aspersions” and “making headlines,” that the process was “frustrating, duplicative and wasteful,” not to mention “disrespectful to our hardworking staff.” The coup de grace? All this has “produced nothing of value in terms of results.”
Well! This brings the relationship between the legislative and executive branches to a new low. The governor and his staff have now poisoned the well so thoroughly that there is little hope for the upcoming session. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, himself on the receiving end of occasional gubernatorial hate and discontent, is still trying. Back in August he said, “I desperately need the governor to be successful, our entire state does.” Good luck with that.
Needless to say, the bridges have long been burned between the governor’s office and Speaker of the House Mark Eves, who lost a job thanks to gubernatorial pressure on the Good Will-Hinckley school. The governor alleged the speaker was unqualified for the post.
Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett framed that matter this way: “I think the governor views that he was raising legitimate questions about the sort of soft corruption in Augusta where people are suddenly eligible for jobs that they weren’t qualified for before.”
Hmm. How about when William Beardsley was hired momentarily as “director of special projects” at the Department of Education, making him eligible for a job he wasn’t eligible for before? Only as an employee of the department was he able to become acting commissioner. Soft corruption? Oh yeah.
Commissioner Mayhew’s outrage at the legislature’s demands on her time is unprecedented – at least in public. Sure, her boss may have created his own brand of havoc with the legislature. But for a cabinet member to be so dismissive of a legislative committee? Unheard of.
She is not the first commissioner to despair over the agony that is the legislative process. Far too often, our highest-paid state employees have been required to dance attendance on the policy committees. Countless hours have been lost in Room 228, while agency officials await the return of the Appropriations Committee from the inner sanctum at the back of the committee room. Even so, airing that frustration in public will not improve it.
Speaking of qualifications, 11 years as lobbyist for and vice president of the Maine Hospital Association may have exposed Mayhew to many aspects of the health care system, but it may not be serving her well when it comes to running a department of more than 3,400 employees with an annual budget of $3.4 billion.
Here is what Douglas Rooks, former Maine Times editor and longtime observer of the state had to say in 2012 when the DHHS had to resolve back-to-back budget shortfalls totaling $300 million: “It’s doubtful Mayhew, who has no credentials equipping her to manage an agency with 4,000-plus employees, could have carried this off, especially after she fired all top managers who understood the complex Medicaid program. She only got the job, transferring from her role as LePage’s health care adviser, when he couldn’t locate a suitable candidate.”
State Senator William Diamond summed up the communications impasse in these words: “Frankly, I’m getting sick of this.”
So are we all, senator. So are we all.