December 23, 2013

COMMENTARY: LePage’s naughty and nice list

Dan Demeritt

Late last week, Gov. Paul LePage announced an accord with legislative leaders ending his six-month prohibition on administrative officials participating in legislative hearings. Lawmakers need access to public sector experts and policy implementers to do their work, so I welcomed the news.

While I am pleased that State House peace and good tidings have been restored, the timing is unfortunate. I had planned a column about the topic and found myself scrambling for new subject matter as my deadline approached.

Until, that is, I came across a gift that any political pundit could appreciate — a 36-minute recording of last week’s LePage press conference posted online by Maine Public Radio’s Mal Leary. Based on what I heard and what I know, I can now present readers with LePage’s list of those who have been naughty and nice over the last year.

LePage’s Nice List

At the top of LePage’s nice list is Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. Despite the challenges facing her department, LePage expresses total confidence in the embattled commissioner. He argues that there is no one more dedicated to serving the people of Maine and that she is especially committed to serving the mentally ill, disabled and elderly.

Far more than political spin or cover, LePage’s praise for Mayhew was authentic and heartfelt. Hers is a big job and the governor fully believes she is up for taking on the challenges of managing Maine’s biggest agency.

The governor had equally high praise for the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Program Accountability and its director, Beth Ashcroft. LePage suggested OPEGA is probably the best organization the Legislature has ever created. He went on to say that Ashcroft is wonderful and when she finds an issue with an agency his administration needs to look at it.

I called Ashcroft to let her know she had made the governor’s nice list and to ask her what she wanted for Christmas. She was happy to hear about the governor’s kind words and suggested that the support and agency cooperation her office receives from the LePage administration is the gift that keeps on giving.

As part of the press conference, LePage discussed charges of incompetency in his administration and revealed one of his leadership characteristics that I find to be most compelling and authentic. Being from the business world, LePage knows that mistakes happen. Good managers recognize mistakes, fix them and move on. Mismanagement occurs when a mistake is discovered and then is hidden away without being resolved.

Failure to properly control the flow of information about mistakes in a political setting can present your opponents with opportunities. That LePage could care less about the public relations pitfalls will always present him and his team with political challenges.

LePage’s Naughty List

Welfare cheats are at the very top of LePage’s naughty list. Sharing a photo from the Auburn Police Department, LePage explained that six Electronic Benefit Transfer Cards were seized in a recent drug bust. The EBT cards apparently had been given to drug dealers in exchange for drugs.

LePage is intent on implementing safeguards in the EBT program in the upcoming legislative session that would make it harder to commit welfare fraud. He argued, for example, that EBT cards should include the recipient’s photo.

When it was mentioned that the federal government would have to approve reforms, LePage expressed willingness to shutdown Maine’s Electronic Transfer Benefit program if the federal government will not let the state address and prevent fraud in the program.

That being said, the governor believes most use the benefits appropriately and that the federal government does not want EBT cards used in an underground economy that supports drug abuse, gambling, tobacco or alcohol use. He sounded optimistic about finding agreement with the federal government on common-sense reforms for the program.

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