AUGUSTA –– Gov. Paul LePage elaborated Friday on his proposal to change the way the state’s top lawyer and election official are elected, saying the change may be one of the most important bills his administration will advance during his eight years in office.

The plan comes as LePage continues to use the power of his office to implement an aggressive agenda. He told reporters Friday that his proposal to replace the secretary of state with a lieutenant governor, as well as change the way the attorney general is selected, is still in development. However, he indicated that both changes stem from his current rift with the Democratic Attorney General, Janet Mills, and his dissatisfaction with the transfer of power that occurs if the chief executive dies or resigns from office.

Currently, the president of the state Senate assumes power, but LePage said that succession doesn’t honor Maine voters because the Senate leader could be from a different party.

“The way it runs now, if something happens to the governor you could totally – in the midst of a term – completely change the direction that the governor intended,” he said. “The governor wins the election on a direction, on a vision. If they’re not in the same party, it could be completely changed.”

Such a change would require amending the Maine Constitution, which requires a two-thirds vote by both the Senate and the House and approval by a simple majority of Maine voters. Since 1908, there have been 103 bills or resolves to change how Maine’s constitutional officers are elected, according to research compiled by the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library. None has made it to the ballot box and most have died in committee.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, which first reported the governor’s desire for a lieutenant governor, indicated that LePage also wanted to appoint the state’s attorney general. However, LePage reverted to his previous public statements Friday, saying that he was leaning toward a popularly elected attorney general.

“We’re leaning on a general election at this point,” he said. “We think the people should have a say in who their state attorney is.”

Currently, Maine is the only state in which the Legislature elects its top law official, according to the National Association of Attorneys General. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia popularly elect their attorneys general, and the position is appointed by the governor in five states. In Tennessee, the Supreme Court fills the position.

LePage acknowledged that his move to change the election of attorney general is rooted in his high-profile conflicts with Mills, who has served in the office during the final two years of the governor’s first term and was elected by the Legislature in December to serve two more.

“Right now I have not, as the governor of the state of Maine, had legal representation since May of 2014,” he said. “I’ve had to use my contingency account to pay for lawyers to represent me. I just think that’s wrong.”

Mills has sought to downplay her rocky relationship with LePage, saying the media sometimes over-hypes disagreements that are disproportionately small compared to the number of times the two offices cooperate.

“While it’s true you probably won’t catch Gov. LePage and me sitting down, sharing a glass of Chardonnay, eating Brie and watching ‘Downton Abbey’ together, you will see my office working with the departments of state government and representing the state in nearly 7,000 separate legal matters,” she said after she was sworn in for a second term Jan. 8.

Mills has declined to represent the LePage administration in two key cases, arguing that its position wasn’t legally sound.

LePage hired private attorneys in 2014 to appeal the federal government’s denial of his request to remove about 6,000 young adults from the state’s Medicaid program. Mills refused to take the case, arguing that the case had “little legal merit” and violated a provision of the federal health care law. His administration has also hired a private firm to defend the state in a lawsuit filed by the Maine Municipal Association and two cities challenging the state’s policy to withhold General Assistance benefits to immigrants who are living in the state illegally.

In his current two-year budget, the governor has proposed $2 million for legal expenses.

Feeley, Mills’ spokesman, told the Associated Press that it was “baffling and unprecedented” that the governor would need $2 million for private attorneys.

LePage said Friday that he’ll be “fine” if the Legislature wants to keep the existing election process, but if they do, he’ll push for the additional legal funding.

“You gotta allow me some funds so I can have a lawyer,” he said, adding, “The way we’ve set it up is that the attorney general has veto power over the governor. Well, I don’t think in 1820, that that’s what they were trying to do.”

The governor attempted to preempt any suggestions that his proposals could be seen as a power grab by the executive branch from the Legislature. He said his judicial appointments were evidence that he respects people with different views.

“There’s good people all over the place and they have different views,” he said. “But good people are good people.”

He added, “I think this is a very important decision, probably the most important decision and program we’re going to take on in the eight years we’re going to be here,” he said. “I want to get it right.”

The governor’s proposal could be released in the next few weeks, he said. The initiative follows other moves in which he has used the sweeping powers of his office to force changes or exert political influence on agencies or boards that he believes have not embraced his reform agenda. During his Jan. 9 budget briefing, LePage unexpectedly called for the resignation of Maine Community College President John Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons resigned nearly a week later, despite backing from the board of trustees that hired him.

The governor has also refused to appoint members to the Maine Board of Corrections, a five-member panel that oversees Maine’s county jails. LePage’s move has left the board without a quorum and unable to implement changes or formally request or authorize $2.5 million in additional state funding to keep five jails from running deficits by the end of the fiscal year. The crisis could force the board to hand over control of the county jails to Maine’s 16 county governments.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler


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