Legislature won’t try to save Houlton revenue office jobs

Posted Aug. 28, 2013, at 6:27 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 29, 2013, at 7:39 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature will convene Thursday to take up a $150 million infrastructure bond package and begin to tackle problems facing a state psychiatric hospital, but will take no action to reverse the closure of a state office in Aroostook County.

A proposal by Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, to reopen the satellite office of Maine Revenue Service in Houlton was tabled Wednesday by the Legislative Council, the bipartisan, 10-member body of leading lawmakers from the House and Senate. The council is the gatekeeper for legislators looking to introduce bills to the full Legislature during the special session convened by Gov. Paul LePage on Aug. 29.

The vote to table Jackson’s proposal was 6-4, opposed by Jackson; House Minority Whip Alex Willette, R-Mapleton; Assistant Senate Majority Leader Anne Haskell, D-Portland; and House Majority Whip Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan.

Before it closed Aug. 21, the Houlton office employed 12 people. Another two positions were vacant. Sawin Millett — commissioner for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services — made the decision earlier this month to close the facility and move five of those positions to Augusta to help meet a requirement in the biennium budget to find $11.5 million in savings this fiscal year. The closure is scheduled to save the state $900,000 in the biennium, Millett has said.

The move would result in a net loss of nine state jobs.

The plan was met with scorn from legislators and the Maine State Employees Association, who said the decision was an overreach of the executive branch.

Jackson said that because the office was shuttered last week, there is little chance now that the Legislature can reverse the closure.

“Those people are going to lose their jobs. There’s just no way around it,” he said Wednesday.

Before the Legislative Council met Wednesday, LePage met with Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland; House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick; and Senate Majority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, to discuss the special session.

The governor opposed lawmakers putting additional items on the floor and specifically opposed Jackson’s proposal. LePage defended his administration’s authority under the budget to eliminate executive branch positions without legislative approval. Democrats feared LePage would scuttle the special session by withdrawing his proclamation to bring the Legislature back to Augusta, Alfond said.

Even if the Legislature called a special session without the governor’s proclamation — though it likely would not have the two-thirds vote of legislators to do so — there were likely not enough votes to override a potential veto of Jackson’s proposal, said House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham.

In an effort to preserve the bond package — the product of careful and tense compromise between LePage and the Democrats — Jackson’s proposal was dropped. Meanwhile, the governor pledged improved communication, saying he’d give lawmakers a heads-up if any other positions would be eliminated in an effort to balance the budget.

“The recent closure of a Maine Revenue Services office in Houlton was a difficult decision made by the administration,” LePage said in a statement. “Legislators have rightfully questioned the decision to eliminate nine jobs, particularly at this time in an economically depressed region of the state, and we agree. The situation was made more difficult because the administration did not discuss the decision with legislators who represent Aroostook County in advance.”

The leaders of the Legislative Council also took a conciliatory tone after the meetings, while lamenting the jobs lost in The County.

“We have strong reservations about the closure of the MRS Houlton office, however, we recognize that the outcome won’t be changed by legislative action,” Eves said in a statement.

“The good news about tomorrow is we have been able to protect a delicate compromise to make a $150 million investment in our economy, which will benefit Aroostook County and all of Maine, and that’s critically important for all of us,” Berry said Wednesday in an interview.

This was not the first time that the Houlton MRS office was eyed for closure.

Democratic Gov. John Baldacci also proposed closing the office in an effort to save money during the 2009 fiscal year. Municipal and economic development officials in Houlton and surrounding towns rallied to convince the Legislature to keep the facility open. Thousands of people signed a petition that was sent to the Legislature, asking that the office be kept open. The plan to close it was ultimately scrapped.

Closure of the branch has been considered several times since then, but the Legislature has opted not to pursue it.

Jon McLaughlin, executive director of the Southern Aroostook Development Corp., has fought to prevent closure at Houlton each time the idea has been floated.

“I am very, very upset,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “The last two times that they have threatened to close the office, it has been during the legislative session, so they have had work sessions and public hearings. We have been able to travel to Augusta and testify, produce evidence and refute misconceptions about the facility. This time, the Legislature was not in session, so every letter we wrote, every call we made, pretty much just fell on deaf ears.”

Conlogue said Wednesday evening that despite the vote of the Legislative Council, he hasn’t given up the fight. He will join several MRS employees and local officials in Augusta on Thursday to speak with legislators.

‘We think that bringing the employees down there will help put a human face on this thing,” he said

Conlogue added that the loss of the 12 MRS jobs is a terribly powerful blow on the heels of the news that 140 people will be laid off at Maine Military Authority in Limestone by October.

“It is a lot easier for 12 people to go to Portland and find a job,” he said Wednesday. “But the loss of 12 good paying jobs here is just much harder to absorb.”

Reporter Jen Lynds contributed to this story.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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