“Knowledge is power.”
So the old saying goes. We know that often, the difference between a good decision and a bad one is how much we know beforehand. Should you buy a car from the dealership in your town or the next one over? If one has been the subject of numerous consumer complaints and the other is a sterling example of good business practices, the choice is clear. But only if you know.
In the Legislature, the same is true. The 35 members of the Senate and 151 members of the House of Representatives are charged with making lots of decisions on behalf of Maine’s people — judgment calls about wide-ranging topics from law enforcement to fisheries management to tax policies.
Every lawmaker gets a vote, but we break apart into committees to do the deep digging, the nitty-gritty of research, debate and policymaking. And there, information about our government is crucial.
For the most part, the legislature is made up of dedicated people who care about their constituents and work diligently researching the issues. It's well known that most of the information in state government exists in the vast bureaucracy of the executive branch and needs to be shared with the legislature, media and public. The only way this information can be obstructed is if the governor prohibits his department heads and staff from releasing it.
I’ve had the privilege to work with six different governors — Democrats, Republicans and independents alike and throughout that time, the executive and legislative branches have worked together. The two don’t always agree, and they shouldn't. But they maintained a professional relationship for the benefit of the state as they worked together to solve critical problems.
For the past couple of years that has all changed for the worse. For some reason the governor has refused to allow his department heads and staff to testify and work with the various committees of the legislature. At times he’s ruled that no senior member of his administration may attend a committee meeting to answer lawmakers’ questions about state business. At other times, he’s allowed answers to be made only in writing. Unfortunately, the “answers” provided are often vague and unhelpful. They lead only to more questions. Most agree that such a shortsighted policy is counterproductive and lacks any semblance of sound thinking.
The net effect is crucial information about the state’s finances, its work to treat mentally sick patients, its law enforcement efforts, and more have all been kept from lawmakers. This is contradictory to what's consistently happened with previous governors and most unfortunately, this policy obstructs legislative efforts to find solutions to serious problems. The most frustrating aspect of the governor's policy regarding his refusal to allow his department heads to work with the legislature is simple - it flies in the face of commonsense and keeps important information about state government from the public.
The only reason given by the governor for prohibiting the sharing of critical information is because he says his government employees don't have time. Many believe such a reason doesn't pass the straight face test. Obviously, this also sets a dangerous precedent of obstructionism that the public, once told, will find totally unacceptable. After all, if only the executive branch is privy to information about the state’s business, the legislature is hamstrung in its efforts to write budgets and craft policy and public input is severely limited.
The legislature, and especially the public, needs to insist that this unreasonable policy needs to stop. When elected officials are kept in the dark, their ability to represent their constituents' best interests is diminished. More importantly, it cannot become the norm for any branch of government to restrict information from the public regardless of who gives the order.
As always, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (207) 287-1515.