State union, governor’s office at odds over whether government shutdown is ‘inevitable’

Gov. Paul LePage answers questions from reporters following his education summit at Cony High School in Augusta on Friday, March 22, 2013.
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage answers questions from reporters following his education summit at Cony High School in Augusta on Friday, March 22, 2013.
By Matthew Stone, BDN Staff
Posted May 07, 2013, at 9:26 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s state employees union is requesting a meeting with Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to prepare for what the union is calling an “inevitable” state government shutdown. The shutdown would result if lawmakers and LePage fail to come to agreement on a new state budget by July 1.

In a letter sent to the LePage administration on Monday, the union’s chief negotiator, Rodney Hiltz, wrote that executive branch agencies “were directed to prepare plans for an ‘inevitable’ shutdown of all nonessential functions of state government for the month of July.”

As a result, Hiltz is using the union’s right to request a meeting within the next 10 days “for the purpose of bargaining over both the decision and the impact of this shut down on employees working in the bargaining units represented by this union.”

In his letter, Hiltz also requested correspondence from LePage’s office and state agencies related to a potential government shutdown and any shutdown-related planning documents.

But the LePage administration says there’s been no directive to state agencies to prepare for a shutdown, and discussions have yet to begin to plan for the possibility that government operations will cease July 1.

Cynthia Montgomery, chief counsel for the state’s office of employee relations, said it was “irresponsible” for the union to describe a shutdown as “inevitable.”

“On the one hand, of course, we have to look at that as a possibility,” she said. “At the same time, to characterize it at this point as inevitable without anything other than perhaps some members speculating that it’s inevitable, it really causes a lot of fear and concern that might be needless.”

Montgomery said state officials do plan to start discussing contingency plans for a state shutdown in the near future, even though a shutdown is not yet an inevitability. The union would be notified of any formal shutdown planning, she said.

Timothy Belcher, the union’s general counsel, said union members have been “hearing from their managers that, yes, there’s going to be a shutdown.” And last week, Belcher said, the union saw a “reliable report” indicating a shutdown would happen and instructing managers to make preparations.

Belcher declined to elaborate on the report or provide the Bangor Daily News with a copy.

“We’ve asked for documents to get a sense of what’s going on,” he said. “But the main thing is, we want to sit down and talk with the state. What they’re looking at is a major dislocation of our members’ lives and we need to talk about it.”

The state has issued or prepared letters notifying about 150 state employees with “limited period” positions that their jobs would end July 1 if no additional funds are allocated through the state budget. The state is issuing those letters now to comply with requirements in state collective bargaining agreements that the state give notice “as soon as practicable,” Montgomery said.

The letters alert the employees that the funding for their positions could evaporate if no state budget is passed or if the budget doesn’t allocate the needed funding. The state has issued similar letters during past budget cycles as lawmakers negotiate a new state budget.

“It’s only fair to give people as much notice as we can,” Montgomery said. “It’s certainly a significant change in people’s lives.”

The letter from the Maine State Employees Association comes as lawmakers start negotiations on LePage’s proposal for a new two-year budget, which would take effect July 1. LePage’s finance commissioner, Sawin Millett, is also scheduled Wednesday to release a package of proposed amendments to the budget to keep pace with projections that state revenue collections will dip another $60 million during the two-year budget cycle.

The budget would require passage by two-thirds of lawmakers in order to take effect July 1 and for state government to avoid shutting down.

Democratic lawmakers, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, have already rejected a number of cuts proposed in the budget, and have voted to boost education funding by $30 million beyond LePage’s proposed funding levels.

Lawmakers have yet to reach an accord on how to fill the gap created as a result, with Democrats favoring increases to certain state taxes and LePage generally opposing state tax increases.

The possibility of a state government shutdown has colored debate in the State House since House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport raised the possibility during a television interview in February.

The last time Maine’s state government operations shut down was in 1991, as Republican Gov. John McKernan tussled with a Legislature controlled by Democrats over whether the state budget should be tied to reforms of the state’s workers’ compensation system.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/05/07/politics/union-wants-meeting-with-lepage-to-bargain-over-inevitable-government-shutdown/ printed on September 22, 2014