The following blog post is one of seven that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.
By Oamshri Amarasingham
The biennial budget proposed by Maine Gov. Paul LePage has drawn plenty of notice this session, but one troubling aspect of it has escaped the attention of most and is particularly relevant this Sunshine Week.
Part VV of the budget proposal would give the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) blanket authority to engage in rule-making with no oversight from the public, the legislature or the attorney general. Specifically, it reads:
“This Part gives the Department of Health and Human Services the authority to adopt emergency rules to implement any provisions of this Act over which it has specific authority that has not been addressed by some other Part of the Act without the necessity of demonstrating that immediate adoption is necessary to avoid a threat to public health, safety or welfare.” (emphasis added)
The budget singles out DHHS for this special treatment — no other state agency would be granted such sweeping authority under the proposal. This blatant attempt to exempt DHHS from public scrutiny is particularly troubling given that in recent years the department has repeatedly demonstrated a need for increased oversight.
Indeed, the department is currently embroiled in a lawsuit as a direct result of its decision to disregard Maine’s rule-making process. The Maine Municipal Association brought the suit after DHHS pushed forward with a plan to exclude asylum seekers and other immigrants from receiving General Assistance, even after being informed by the attorney general that the change was unconstitutional. This move by DHHS should be a cause of concern for anyone who cares about government accountability, not to mention the taxpayers who are footing the bill for the resulting legal action.
Given the department’s problematic record, it would be especially troubling for the legislature to exempt this state agency in particular from public input and legal oversight.
We have a rule-making process in place for a reason — to protect the people of Maine from unlawful and/or harmful policies. If anything, the process ought to be subject to more oversight, to ensure that DHHS and other government agencies are adequately serving the people of Maine in accordance with the law.
Oamshri is an attorney at the ACLU of Maine.