Maine sitting on ‘ticking time bombs’ thanks to federal shutdown, says LePage finance chief

Maine Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett, left and Adrienne Bennett, right, director of communications for Gov. Paul LePage, brief statehouse reporters and other media in this December 2012 file photo.
Scott Thistle | Sun Journal
Maine Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett, left and Adrienne Bennett, right, director of communications for Gov. Paul LePage, brief statehouse reporters and other media in this December 2012 file photo.
Posted Oct. 09, 2013, at 10:57 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 09, 2013, at 5:20 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s finance commissioner on Wednesday told lawmakers that running state government under the shadow of an ongoing U.S. government shutdown gets harder with each passing day.

“You’re really sitting on some ticking time bombs,” said Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett during an emergency meeting of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. “Right now we’re just trying to manage day-to-day with the allocation you’ve given us, do our jobs, execute the law, with our employees’ best interests in mind. But it’s getting more and more difficult.”

Millett was asked to brief Appropriations, which was joined by several members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, about the budget implications and ongoing threat of temporary layoffs for state employees that result from the government shutdown.

On Monday, 56 Department of Health and Human Services employees were sent home without pay. Last week, 44 employees from the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management were furloughed.

On Friday, LePage held meetings with all his department chiefs to assess the potential for layoffs as the shutdown drags on. He also met with leaders of the Maine State Employee Association, which represents most state workers. The governor and the union pledged to work together to minimize the impact of the shutdown on state workers.

Despite their best efforts, though, union and political leaders both say the longer the shutdown continues, the harsher its effect will be on state employees and other workers throughout Maine who are paid — in part or in whole — by the federal government. During the shutdown, many of the money streams from Washington stop flowing into Maine, meaning the workers who hold those positions cannot be paid.

Millett said there are 2,739 state employees whose positions are in jeopardy. DHHS and the Department of Labor could be hardest hit. He has asked every department head to identify exactly how long they could fund each of those positions at 100 percent using only the amount allocated in the budget for all of the current fiscal year’s second quarter, which lasts from October through December.

For example, if the state is obligated to pay 50 percent of a worker’s salary, with the federal government responsible for the rest, Millet wants to know how long that 50 percent would cover the worker’s entire pay.

However, Millett said he would not support pulling state allocations from 2014 to pay salaries through the end of this year. That’s partly because it’s unclear how much the federal government would reimburse states for funding lost during the shutdown, or whether it would at all.

“I don’t think you expect us to start digging holes in the third and fourth quarter, and I know the governor is not anxious to do that either,” Millett told legislators.

The shutdown already has sent hundreds of Mainers — including state employees and federal workers such as Acadia National Park rangers — into temporary layoffs. It has caused others, such as air traffic controllers and aviation safety inspectors, to work without pay. More than 400 National Guardsmen were also furloughed, but have since gone back on the job.

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, sits on the Health and Human Services Committee and listened in on Millett’s presentation. He said that in addition to finding ways to minimize the impact of the shutdown on state employees, the administration needed to ensure continuation of services.

“This is becoming very real, very quickly. There needs to be some kind of business continuation plan,” he said. “Are some services going to be shut down completely? Will some have to continue with reduced staff?”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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