For the second time in less than two months, the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee has voted to subpoena a high ranking official at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
The oversight committee voted 8-1 to subpoena Bethany Hamm, director of Office of Family Independence, after she failed to appear at a meeting reviewing a report about a dramatic reduction in cash assistance to low income families.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage has repeatedly restricted the Legislature's access to government officials, frustrating state lawmakers who are charged with overseeing the policies and decisions those officials make.
But unlike some other legislative committees, the oversight panel has subpoena power. Republican state Sen. Tom Saviello, of Wilton, has indicated that the panel’s increasingly willing to use that power to extract answers that the LePage administration won't voluntarily provide.
"This is getting to be ridiculous,” said Saviello. “We can't get our business done, our work done. We're not trying to do a witch hunt. We're just trying to find the information, which is what this Committee is about."
In this case, the Committee is trying to button up an investigation into a dramatic reduction in the number of low-income Mainers who have received cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF).
A recent report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA), a watchdog agency directed by the oversight committee, found that 23,000 fewer Mainers received assistance through the federal program over the past seven years.
The OPEGA report isn't particularly damaging to the LePage administration. It found that the reduction in TANF recipients was driven by restrictions pushed by DHHS and approved by the Legislature. It also found that DHHS had mostly used savings in the program in ways that are allowed under federal law — although it did say that the agency should be more transparent about its decisions.
But when Hamm was asked to discuss those findings at Thursday's meeting, she sent a letter instead.
That wasn't good enough for most members of the committee, including Democratic Representative Jennifer DeChant, of Bath. "It's a shame that this subpoena process is just elongating and slowing down the process,” said DeChant. “Perhaps that is the intent because I'm not really sure that this is the lion's den.”
In June the oversight committee subpoenaed DHHS Chief Ricker Hamilton after he did not appear before the committee when requested to answer questions about OPEGA's report on the state's child welfare system.
LePage said the ongoing criminal investigation into those deaths and what he described as “political grandstanding” by legislative committees were the reasons why Hamilton did not appear voluntarily.
When LePage denied the panel's request to interview Hamm last week, he wrote that allowing her to testify would subject her to the "inevitable politics of the committee." LePage has used that response at various times throughout his seven and a half years as governor. With a little under five months left in the governor's final term, the oversight committee appears unwilling to accept it.
-- This story was updated at 9:34 a.m. on Aug. 13 to clarify why Ricker Hamilton was subpoenaed by the oversight committee.