AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage wants the state to direct nearly $1 million to keep attorneys in the Department of Health and Human Services.

The bill aims to restore eight staffers who provide legal services and whose contract positions end soon, according to Rep. Paul Chace, R-Durham, who sponsored LePage’s plan at a public hearing Monday. Lawmakers cut three general counsel positions and five other employees in the department in the two-year, $7.1 billion budget passed last summer, according to agency spokeswoman Emily Spencer.

The proposal asks for about $647,000 from Maine’s general fund and several hundred thousand dollars from federal and special revenue funds.

Michael Mahar, deputy commissioner of program policy and operations for the DHHS, says the positions aren’t meant to replace work done by Attorney General Janet Mills’ office, but says her office can’t provide needed in-house legal services.

“The department is confident that the quality and sophistication of its service contracts, department rules and internal decisions have dramatically increased as a direct result of hiring for these eight positions,” Mahar said in written testimony.

Mahar said the positions went away because of a disagreement with the Attorney General’s Office about whether a state law requires the department to receive permission to fill such positions. “We don’t believe that statute applies to these positions,” Mahar said.

Democrats, including Mills, questioned the rationale for such positions during the legislative hearing Monday on LePage’s proposal. Mahar said his department will provide more details.

“One of the questions is to whom are they accountable? To whom are they answering? Where are they getting their legal advice?” testified Mills, who is running for governor to succeed the term-limited LePage this year.

She said her office can provide help with services such as contract review, though a 2016 executive order issued by LePage eliminated a requirement for the attorney general to examine proposed contracts worth $3 million or more.

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