AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage told legislative leaders Tuesday morning that more layoffs of federally funded state workers could be coming this week unless the federal government shutdown ends soon, though he agreed Tuesday afternoon to terms that will ease the financial impact on those employees.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, told the Bangor Daily News after a Tuesday morning meeting they and other legislative leaders had with LePage that the administration is exploring whether more layoffs or interruptions in service will be necessary in the coming days.
“The answer to that is ‘yes,’” said Fredette.
“The DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] was mentioned,” said Thibodeau.
Later on Tuesday, discussions between the executive branch and the Maine State Employees Association about how layoffs will be handled culminated in an agreement, according to a news release from LePage. The agreement includes provisions that the state will pay for laid-off employees’ health benefits; that they will not be required to search for work while they collect unemployment benefits; and that laid-off state employees be paid with accrued vacation or leave time if the federal government does not pay them retroactively when the shutdown ends.
“We are very pleased that the union came to the table and agreed with our proposals to help our state employees who have been impacted by the federal shutdown,” said LePage. “This is an agreement in concept, but it provides these employees with the security level they need if they get laid off.”
Chris Quint, executive director of the 13,000-member MSEA, confirmed the tentative agreement Tuesday evening and said the details will be developed in the next few days.
“At this point we have an agreement in concept that we’re happy with,” he said. “I think based on the conceptual agreement we got tonight, it’s good for state employees and it’s good for the state.”
Quint said the written agreement will not require a union-wide vote. He said he hadn’t heard anything specific about new layoffs coming this week and said he was disappointed to hear from the BDN that some specifics were shared with legislators Tuesday morning.
“We continue to request that information from the state and they say they are looking through that,” said Quint. “We have not gotten any specifics from the state. If the governor is giving specifics to the Legislature, that’s very disappointing.”
Quint also responded to a post Tuesday morning by BDN blogger Mike Tipping about a recording of remarks that LePage allegedly made Monday to the Greater Portland chapter of the Informed Women’s Network. According to Tipping, LePage said the MSEA union contract, which was signed in July for a term of two years, is “null and void until after the crisis.”
Quint said he was surprised by the comment.
“Up until this point it has been our understanding that the governor has said he will adhere to the contract as it’s set forth,” said Quint. “It’s upsetting that he’s not saying privately or to leadership that he seeks to make the contract null and void.”
Last week, LePage proclaimed the federal government shutdown a civil emergency, which gives him more power than the governor’s office typically has. Specifically, it allows LePage to circumvent state laws or rules if he determines they “prevent, hinder or delay the effective management of the emergency,” according to the text of the proclamation.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Tuesday morning that LePage had yet to exercise any of the additional authority given to him under the civil emergency.
Speaker of the Maine House Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, also attended the Tuesday morning meeting with LePage. Eves said one issue he raised was the breadth and length of the civil emergency.
“The concern that we have with this civil emergency is the broad authority granted to the governor and our request to amend that in a way that clearly communicates to the public what the need is and what the intentions are of declaring a civil emergency,” said Eves. “The fact the governor is unwilling to amend that is a red flag for us. … It would go a long way for the governor to put pen to paper and tell the people of Maine what his intentions are.”
Alfond, who has frequently clashed with LePage, said he is also concerned about the declaration of a civil emergency but is convinced the governor is concerned about the welfare of state employees.
“What all of us in the Legislature and the executive office really want is for our state employees [who are laid off] to land softly,” said Alfond. “There’s a lot of unpredictability for them and their families. The holidays are coming up and there’s no real path right now that we’re all seeing that this D.C. debacle is going to end.”
According to Fredette and Thibodeau, the possibility of convening the Legislature for a special session to deal with the ramifications of the federal government shutdown was discussed in passing but there are no current plans to do so.
“That’s just a thought at this point, but we would do it if we had a plan,” said Thibodeau. “We would need a plan that we could all agree to, including the governor, that we could take to our caucuses before we could ever have that conversation. The governor made it clear. He said, ‘If you come up with a plan, I will call you back in.’”