AUGUSTA — Maine’s Democratic leaders and union representatives demanded answers from Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday about what specific actions he plans to take after declaring a civil emergency and how it will affect state employees.
The Republican governor’s proclamation came Wednesday on the ninth day of the federal government shutdown, which has caused funding for state programs and positions to dry up. LePage said the civil emergency allows him to suspend state laws and regulations to better manage the shutdown’s impact on Maine and expedite unemployment benefits for furloughed workers.
“It is my goal, solely, to get money in state employees’ pockets as quickly as possible,” LePage told reporters Thursday after meeting with Democratic and Republican leaders at the State House.
But Democratic leaders and the Maine State Employees Association called the governor’s action an unnecessary overreach of power that raises questions about how it will impact the union’s collective bargaining agreement.
House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat from North Berwick, expressed concern about LePage not being clear about the expanded authority he is granting himself and how he will use it.
“This is a governor that tried to shut down the government during the last budget process,” Berwick said, pointing to LePage’s veto of the state budget just days before the start of the fiscal year in June. “What we don’t want to see what is happening in (Washington) D.C. come here.”
LePage gave some answers Thursday, saying that he could, for example, waive the requirement that people must seek another job to get unemployment benefits. He said he could also immediately furlough some employees who would lose their jobs if the state runs out of money because of the shutdown so they could collect unemployment within five days, instead of having to give them 15 days’ notice — days they wouldn’t get paid.
Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau, of Winterport, said that LePage also told lawmakers that he would have the authority to reopen a state-owned pier on federal land in Washington County, restoring work for fishermen there.
But Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, criticized LePage for not communicating with the union about what this move means for state workers. More than 100 state workers have already been temporarily laid off, although some have already returned, and the administration has said that several thousand more federally-funded jobs are at risk.
“We haven’t been told of the 2,700 employees that are partially or fully federally funded, which ones are next to be laid off, when that will happen,” he said. “We haven’t been given any information as far as the specifics of this up to this point.”
LePage said that if the federal government shutdown continues beyond the next 10 days, nearly all of the 2,700 partially or federally funded state employees could be furloughed. He said he is doing everything possible to honor the union’s collective bargaining agreement.
“We want this not to be a management and labor problem,” he said. “We want to be (that) we’re working together to get money into the employee’s pockets.”