Statehouse Report: Lawmakers livid after labor commissioner’s no-show

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A war of words last week between Maine’s Democratic governor and the Democratic legislative committee chair who was the party’s last standard-bearer against Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins dramatically interrupted the Legislature’s movement toward reconvening – although the dispute does not seem to have spread to other committees.

At issue was Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman’s failure to appear before the Labor and Housing Committee co-chaired by Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014 before being elected to the state Senate two years later. Fortman appeared before the committee on May 6 for four hours, and lawmakers expected a return appearance when they met on June 4.

Bellows criticized the Mills administration for withholding Fortman’s testimony, amid bipartisan concern about the performance of the state unemployment compensation system.

The governor fired back.

Her office accused Bellows of “feigning surprise” about the absence, calling it “disingenuous” because Mills had indicated to Senate President Troy Jackson that Fortman was “unlikely” to attend. Mills provided no reason why Fortman wasn’t “available,” and her press secretary, Lindsay Crete, didn’t respond Monday to an inquiry about when a future meeting might take place.

Bellows wasn’t backing down. She said that, as the committee that oversees the Labor Department, it communicates directly with the commissioner’s office, and heard nothing to indicate Fortman wouldn’t attend or send a representative.

The largely online meeting was one of a half dozen sessions scheduled by agreement between legislative leaders and the administration; a followup meeting involving the Appropriations Committee took place without incident the next day.

The last contact the Labor Committee had with the commissioner’s office was the day prior to the meeting, Bellows said, when the committee sent a Zoom link and received “Thanks” as a reply.

“This is not how government is supposed to work,” Bellows said. “Not responding to an appropriate communication shows disrespect for the Legislature, and for the citizens who rely on us to represent them.” She said Democrats strongly objected when former Gov. Paul LePage prevented commissioners from testifying before several committees, adding, “it was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.”

The committee’s Republican leader, Sen. Stacy Guerin of Glenburn, who represents rural Penobscot County, agreed. She had no idea Fortman wouldn’t attend and said she disagreed with the LePage administration when it withheld commissioners, too.

“It’s not something I would ever recommend, or accept,” Guerin said. “When voices are silenced, our constituents have no voice, either.”

Guerin and Bellows emphasized different concerns about the Department of Labor’s performance during the coronavirus-induced economic downturn.

Guerin said “thousands” of fraudulent claims are coming through, and isn’t convinced the administration is doing enough to stem them. She said she gets emails every day from constituents who have been told about benefits they haven’t applied for. 

“Had Commissioner Fortman appeared,” she said, “I would have offered suggestions on how that could be averted.”

Google programs offer fraud protection, Guerin said, adding that other states have been more creative in countering false claims. Pennsylvania has taken to sending requirements for PIN numbers by mail, and also turned to paper checks as a means of reducing the false claims Gov. Mills said are “perpetuated by organized crime.”

Perhaps if Mills didn’t want Fortman to appear, she could have testified herself, Guerin said, as LePage occasionally did.

Bellows said she remains worried about what she called a “user-hostile” claims website designed by the LePage administration, and that no action has been taken to improve it. Both senators said it’s unacceptable, as Guerin put it, that “people had to wait months with no job and no unemployment compensation.”

The second Democrat on the committee, Sen. Mark Lawrence of Kittery, said he hopes the commissioner’s absence is “unique to DOL.” He said the Energy, Utilities and Technology  panel, which he chairs, has been “very well briefed” by the administration and, near the end of the LePage administration, his former committee, Insurance and Financial Services, had no problem with communication, either.

Even during the session that featured the 1991 state shutdown, when Lawrence served in the House, commissioners still appeared regularly, he noted.

Overall, Lawrence said Mills has done “a tremendous job” during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he said the standoff “is not healthy for DOL, and not healthy for the Labor Committee.”

Somehow, he said, “we have to find a way to break this impasse.”

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.