Capitol Notebook: Maine's political battles don’t break for the holidays

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The Christmas spirit has not yet arrived in Augusta.

In one day last week, the major problems of the LePage administration burst onto the headlines again as another federal agency sharply criticized the performance of the Department of Health and Human Services.

And also last Monday, Gov. Paul LePage sounded a surprising retreat in his battle to withhold bond funds from the Land for Maine’s Future Board in order to force lawmakers to increase the timber harvest on public lands to fund heating assistance for the poor.

The governor offered no olive branch while he sounded his partial retreat. He instead leveled another blistering attack on legislators:

“You are content to watch seniors and other poor Mainers freezing in their homes while you cater to special interests so the rich can enjoy walking trails and scenic views funded by the taxes of the very people you refuse to help,” LePage wrote to Senate President Michael Thibodeau and House Speaker Mark Eves. “You don’t know what it’s like to be cold in the winter but I do.”

And while the battle over land funds entered a new phase, it was a familiar story of poor performance at the Department of Health and Human Services.

In many national rankings for education, poverty rates, and other measures, the state of Maine usually ranks pretty low.

But the Department of Health and Human Services, under the direction of Mary Mayhew, has now achieved a dead last ranking in the measure of the timeliness by which it processes food stamp applications. For a period this year, Maine has ranked 53rd among the 53 state agencies in the federal rating of the timeliness in the processing of food stamp applications, under the federal program known as Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP.

In a Dec. 7 letter, the acting regional administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service program told Mayhew that the state’s timeliness performance had deteriorated from 36th to 53rd. The feds have now put DHHS on a short leash, demanding weekly updates in progress towards compliance and threatening a cutoff of funds if goals are not met.

The department seems to come up short in effective management of what is admittedly a vast and complex system. In certain areas of the DHHS, Mayhew has depleted the ranks of experienced managers. Personnel come and go through a revolving door.

This failure in the food stamp program follows continuing challenges at the state’s Riverview hospital, also likely due to ineffective management. Mayhew has worked to improve conditions there, but continuing bad publicity and previous incidents have made it difficult to hire the people they need to solve the problem. The present staff strains under a burden of mandatory overtime.

As the pre-holiday week came to a close, a blizzard of letters swirled in the Statehouse as LePage also attacked the drug policy proposal put forward by legislative leaders. It looks like when the legislative session starts on Jan. 6 there will be a fight over funding and priorities in the most critical issue facing the state, the epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths. Attorney General Janet Mills estimates that there are five overdose deaths per week.

If we look for good news in Augusta at this time of year, it seems to be that legislators have struck a bipartisan tone among themselves, as they withstand the the governor’s attacks. If that spirit holds they may be able to be effective in the upcoming policy fights.

But fasten your seat belts, it looks like a bumpy ride.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.