AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Monday said he has no plans to shut down state government and accused Maine’s state employees union of “lying” and “manufacturing a crisis” by claiming state agencies have been instructed to prepare for a shutdown.
In a letter LePage sent Monday to the Maine State Employees Association, he blasted the union for declining to provide proof of a claim it made last week that executive branch agencies were directed to prepare what the union called an “inevitable” state shutdown on July 1.
“Since you refuse to provide me with evidence to support your claim that the executive branch issued the directive,” LePage wrote, “I can only conclude that the MSEA is spreading gossip about a shutdown as a ploy to seek political leverage.”
The dispute between the union and LePage started a week ago when the MSEA’s chief negotiator, Rodney Hiltz, wrote in a letter to the state’s employee relations office 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.”
In the letter, Hiltz demanded the opportunity to bargain with state officials over the shutdown decision and its effect on state employees.
Timothy Belcher, the union’s general counsel, told the Bangor Daily News last week that union members have been “hearing from their managers that, yes, there’s going to be a shutdown.” And Belcher said the union recently 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. And in a follow-up letter to LePage last week, the union declined to provide the evidence that agencies had been directed to plan for a shutdown, though the union said the report was credible.
“We stand by our report, as it came from a credible source,” Hiltz, the union’s negotiator, wrote to LePage. “Moreover, we received further confirmation of this report after I sent my letter, from an independent source at another state agency.”
Belcher said Monday the union made its request to bargain when a union member “who would be privy to this kind of information” told union leaders that her agency had been instructed to prepare for a shutdown. Whether the governor directed state agencies to make shutdown preparations or not, Belcher said, the LePage administration should be involving the union in conversations about shutdown planning.
“This is just another example of a situation where the governor of the state of Maine should negotiate to solve problems that affect people in Maine,” Belcher said, “and we have a governor who has proved himself time and again to be unable to negotiate.”
In his letter Monday to Hiltz, LePage wrote that he expects the union to inform members that he has not issued a directive to shut down state government. He made the same demand during a meeting Monday morning with union representatives.
State government would shut down nonessential operations on July 1 if lawmakers and LePage fail to reach an accord and pass a new state budget.
LePage administration officials have denied that agencies have been given a directive to prepare for a shutdown. However, state officials are planning to start discussing contingency plans for a shutdown in the near future, even though a shutdown is not yet an inevitability, Cynthia Montgomery, chief counsel for the state’s office of employee relations, said in an interview last week.
The union would be notified of any formal shutdown planning, she said.
The Maine State Employees Association and LePage have long been at odds. The union and the state have not agreed on terms for a new contract and the two sides are currently in mediation. The union’s contract with the state expired in June 2011.
In addition, the union has two complaints pending against LePage’s administration before the Maine Labor Relations Board, accusing the state of failing to bargain with the union in good faith over the terms of a new contract and of refusing the union’s call to negotiate over employee pay in LePage’s proposal for a new two-year budget.
The union last week dropped a third complaint against the administration, which accused LePage of illegally hiring private contractors to perform state employees’ work after the union’s contract expired.