Governor constrains Rep. Hubbell’s quest for education funding information

If you were to build a legislator from the ground up, what characteristics would you include? Intelligence? Openness to ideas from many sources? Not entirely driven by party ideology? Good “people” skills? A calm demeanor? A sense of humor? A generosity of spirit, able to see the good side of a variety of people and issues?

OK, you’re done. Whip off the drape, and there you have state Rep. Brian Hubbell of Bar Harbor. An MIT graduate and project engineer, Hubbell is completing his second term in the Legislature, having served on the Education Committee both terms.

His passion for long-distance running is reflected in his approach to legislative service: a steady pace, strong on endurance, leading to gradual progress. How’s that working for him?

“We have a great committee” is his starting point, for which he credits the committee co-chairs, one of whom, Sen. Brian Langley, is also a member of the Hancock County delegation. Langley’s Republican affiliation means little to Democrat Hubbell. What matters is his skill as a committee leader, and for this he has Hubbell’s admiration. “He understands people,” says Hubbell of Langley, “and I know I can trust him.”

Rep. Hubbell’s view of the administration, while respectful, is not as complimentary. Though his style is definitely collegial, Hubbell is now officially cross-threaded with the administration of Governor Paul LePage — or at least with Governor LePage himself.

Walking on the wonky side of political life, Hubbell is patient and determined about getting to the bottom of things. He is finding that to be a challenge with the LePage administration. When a spreadsheet of General Purpose Aid to education distributions did not add up, he pursued an explanation for the $11.2 million gap. Lengthy conversations, in committee and with Department of Education officials did not yield the explanation he sought.

“I’m not saying anyone is at fault here,” he says. “It just hasn’t been explained yet in a way that makes sense to me.” In fact, Hubbell goes out of his way to describe department staff as “just people trying to do a good job.” Slow to suspicion, his concerns about the department are mounting.

There is the unexplained GPA deficit. There is the private meeting of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Education Funding, for which the Governor is being formally charged with violating Maine’s open meeting law by Attorney General Janet Mills. (Hubbell was one of the Education Committee members turned away at the Blaine House door when he attempted to attend.)

Then there is the status of not-exactly-Commissioner Bill Beardsley. “I have grave concerns about the leadership capacity” of the DoE, says Hubbell, who goes on to describe the department as “adrift.” That leadership is in the hands of Beardsley, though it took some creativity to get it there.

After the Education Committee forewarned the Governor that there would be questions of his nominee for commissioner of education, the Governor pulled the nomination. There followed a one-day appointment of Beardsley as director of special projects in order to qualify him to be appointed deputy commissioner

Beardsley is now the functional leader of the DoE, but as problems with his statutory responsibilities mounted, the Governor appointed former legislator Deb Plowman as “temporary deputy education commissioner,” enabling Beardsley to continue to run the department without getting afoul of the limits of his authority.

Why on earth would two experienced public servants consent to all this maneuvering to help the Governor avoid his constitutional duty to appoint an actual commissioner? Hubbell expresses respect and sympathy for both Beardsley and Plowman in what can only be described as their awkward statuses, but stops well short of impugning their motives.

Instead, he lays the current situation at the Governor’s doorstep. Citing the Governor’s penchant for cutting off communications whenever and with whomever he is currently at odds, Hubbell speculates (and indeed the Governor himself acknowledges) that the Governor’s staff is under orders to restrict the flow of information to legislators, individually and collectively, making it difficult to understand, for instance, the $11.2 million GPA gap.

Hubbell does “quizzical” well. His brow furrows. He pauses to search for just the right word. He struggles to clarify that his critique is based on substance, not personality. Yet he is finding it harder to consider all this part of the routine messiness of democracy. “There are an increasing number of statutory obligations [the DoE] is not meeting,” he says. As a “good functionary,” he is troubled. And he is taking action.

Governor LePage described Hubbell’s requests to the DoE for additional information as “excessive disruption” and an attempt at “improper influence.” Even then, Hubbell’s response was measured, quoted thusly: “It may be perfectly justified. All I want is an explanation.”

Step by step, Hubbell is moving forward to get that explanation. Verbal requests followed by written requests, maybe an official Freedom of Information request, are in the works. He is more focused on results than publicity. A model of patience and courtesy, this long distance runner intends to reach the finish line.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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