AUGUSTA — The legislative session hasn’t started yet, but tensions are already running high between Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic lawmakers in Augusta.

Democrats say they’re frustrated with the Republican governor’s new policy limiting executive branch staff appearances at committee hearings, spurring a debate that’s setting the stage for another combative legislative session.

For several months, LePage has required that lawmakers ask his permission when seeking testimony from his department heads at committee hearings. Democrats say that unprecedented policy has meant they’re increasingly getting written responses to questions from commissioners instead of in-person testimony, preventing them from doing their work.

“It really has just reached a breaking point where we need to step up and we need to say ‘enough is enough,’ ” said House Democratic leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham. “No, Governor, you are not a dictator, this is a democracy.”

The dust-up between LePage and Democratic leaders comes as lawmakers prepare and set their legislative agenda for their January return. It foreshadows what’s likely to be a session filled with icy rhetoric much like the last one, which began with the Republican governor refusing to meet with Democratic leaders out of frustration over being trailed by a Democratic video tracker and ended with a record number of vetoed bills.

In a fiery letter responding to Democrats’ call for an end to the policy, LePage said his administration has cooperated with committees, spending hours preparing and presenting testimony and reports. Several administration officials have testified before committee hearings since LePage put the policy in place, including Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who recently spent several hours answering questions before lawmakers regarding the status of a troubled psychiatric hospital.

LePage said Democrats often only want to bring his commissioners before their committees to score political points by berating them in front of cameras.

“Having been accustomed to one-party rule for so long, perhaps you believe the executive branch is still at your beck and call,” he wrote. “It must be frustrating to have to start conducting your work in a businesslike way.”

Democrats say the governor’s “gag order” on his staff has slowed down their work on issues like transportation and health care because getting only written responses from commissioners means that they can’t ask follow-up questions.

“The work that the people sent us up here to do … really requires a dialogue and this slows down that dialogue,” said Assistant Senate Democratic leader Anne Haskell of Portland.

Despite Democrats’ desire for a change in the policy before the new session begins, LePage said it will continue. He said his commissioners have important work to do that’s put aside when they wait in committee rooms “for hours on end, just in case (lawmakers) pose a question.”

“They have been kept waiting for hours while you pontificate and preen for the cameras, and then subject them to interminable, repetitive questions,” he wrote. “No more.”

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