AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday defended his proclamation of a civil emergency and said he intended to use his broadened authority for the benefit of state employees.
“It is my goal, solely, to get money in state employees’ pockets as quickly as possible,” he told reporters after meeting with legislative leaders.
On Wednesday evening, LePage declared the civil emergency as a result of the federal government shutdown, which has stopped the flow of federal dollars to state programs and workers and caused more than 100 layoffs of federally funded state employees.
LePage said Thursday that if the shutdown doesn’t end within a couple weeks, more than 2,700 federally funded state workers would be off the job. He said his emergency powers, which allow him to circumvent state laws and rules in order to manage the crisis, would give him the flexibility needed to minimize the damage to state employees and services.
Initially it was unclear exactly what rules or laws he hoped to bypass. Top Democrats have called the move “unsettling,” while the largest union representing state workers said it was an “unnecessary power grab.”
On Thursday, LePage gave some clarification, but it was not enough to appease his critics.
For example, the governor said some state employees must be given 15 days notice of a pending layoff because of their union contract. But because of the shutdown, the state may not be able to afford two weeks of pay. In that situation, LePage instead would institute an immediate layoff, which would speed up the process of applying for unemployment benefits, he said.
The governor also said he would lift the requirement that state workers collecting unemployment actively look for a job. That’s because he plans to bring all laid-off state employees back to work after the shutdown ends, he said.
“I don’t want them to go look for work,” he said. “We need them. They’re trained and they’re important to us.”
After the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said the governor had clearly laid out his case for declaring an emergency.
“Gov. LePage’s first priority is to keep paying workers, protect their benefits, and allow them to put food on their tables,” he said. “With this declaration, the governor is trying to assure that these state workers receive unemployment benefits as quickly as possible. The civil emergency declaration is an administrative tool that the governor is using to manage this unprecedented situation.”
Still, Democrats said Thursday that they wanted more specifics from the governor. They fear he could use his expanded authority to suspend the state’s labor relations law, allowing him to break state workers’ union contracts.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said that during the morning meeting with LePage, Democrats proposed that LePage outline exactly what powers the governor’s emergency authority included, what laws he intended to waive and when the emergency would end.
That idea was met with a “cold shoulder,” Eves said.
Administration officials countered that the governor had no specific laws in mind when he declared the emergency, only the knowledge that he would need increased executive flexibility to handle the crisis.
Eves recalled LePage’s budget veto in June — which could have resulted in a state government shutdown if lawmakers hadn’t overridden it, though the governor said a shutdown never was his goal — and said he doubted LePage’s assertion that the emergency powers would be a benefit to state workers.
“Does this pass the straight-face test?” he asked reporters. “This is a governor who tried to shut our state down. … It’s very important that the governor communicates very clearly. To question the details of the proclamation is within our responsibility. We wouldn’t be doing what was responsible if we just said, ‘OK, Governor. You’re the first in the nation to do this. Why don’t you just go ahead?’”
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, chastised Democrats and others who have speculated about ulterior motives for the governor declaring an emergency.
“The idea that this is some sort of conspiracy the governor has, or some sort of plan he has to do something bad, is just really ridiculous,” Fredette said. “We ought to embrace the opportunity to work with the chief executive so that we can get through this as a state. … This is not a time to be suspicious and to play politics.”
Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said the union had been left in the dark as to the governor’s plans for addressing the impact of the shutdown on state employees.
“I wouldn’t call [the meetings between the union and the administration] that happened over the past few days ‘negotiations,’” Quint said. “We feel this action here is, instead of negotiating, he’s dropped a nuclear bomb on us.”
Quint also echoed the Democrats’ complaint that they had not been consulted about the emergency proclamation ahead of time. The union and top lawmakers all said they heard about the governor’s plan at 4:50 p.m. Wednesday, just 10 minutes before the announcement went out to the general public.
The governor said that the idea of asserting emergency authority was raised by his legal staff on Wednesday.
LePage’s appears to be the only statewide emergency declaration made as a result of the funding crisis, but several counties in Utah have declared similar emergencies.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.