Gov. Paul LePage and the state employees union are contributing to what’s becoming a toxic environment in Augusta. The negative, distrustful atmosphere will only increase the chance of a potential shutdown of state government in July. Right now legislators need help, not distractions, in crafting a 2014-15 budget that will pass — because in the end, the only entity with the real power to prevent a shutdown is the Legislature.
It’s unfortunate the Maine State Employees Association can’t supply physical evidence that someone directed state agencies to prepare for an “inevitable” shutdown. Tim Belcher, the union’s general counsel, said he wouldn’t reveal the identity of the source of information because he didn’t want her to face retaliation.
“Whether she was accurate in what she told me or not, I believe her, and I stand by her,” he said.
It may be understandable for the MSEA to want to protect the member who became privy to information about supposed plans in case of a shutdown, but having proof would silence LePage, who has escalated his public attack of the union.
On Monday LePage’s office issued a release saying Belcher was lying: “I, as the chief executive of the state, have had no plan to shut down state government. It did not come from the executive branch. Why are you scaring people?” He added that the MSEA was “spreading gossip about a shutdown as a ploy to seek political leverage.”
It’s good LePage doesn’t have a plan to shut down state government because he doesn’t have that power. If no budget is passed, he has no authority to spend money; a shutdown is an operation of law, not a decision by the governor. But by slamming back, LePage increased the tension and made it harder for the two sides to reach an understanding. Even if the MSEA did have incorrect information, LePage made the situation worse.
It’s possible the MSEA is mistaken. On Tuesday, May 14, Cynthia Montgomery, chief counsel for the office of employee relations, said no evidence has been found that executive branch departments and agencies were directed to prepare plans for a shutdown of all non-essential functions of state government.
“We have found none. We’ve made inquires. We’ve looked for any documentation, and there is none,” she said. She also said no contingency plans are in place in the event of a shutdown. “The planning hasn’t started. There’s not a specific plan to start. We are still six weeks away,” she said.
Whether the MSEA has correct information or not, the damage is done. Both sides appear caught in a struggle to blame the other more. State government relies on a level of trust and courtesy to be effective. Right now it’s not giving Maine residents any reason to have faith there won’t be a shutdown.
That’s why residents should urge their lawmakers to avert a crisis by building a two-year budget that has the support needed to override a veto. Clearly the governor is not helping the budget process — both in terms of his tone, the impracticability of his budget proposals and his inability so far to adapt those proposals.
Unfortunately, the Legislature already experienced its own rumblings of a shutdown when House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said in March on WCSH 6 that a government shutdown was a possibility. That kind of talk needs to stop. There are enough challenges to overcome in the budget without lawmakers having a cloud hanging over their heads of an impending shutdown. This is no time for self-fulfilling prophecies.