Gov. Paul LePage is not alone in doubting the ability of the U.S. Congress to get its act together and pass meaningful legislation that tackles critical issues facing the nation. But at a moment when it appears all but certain Congress has finally set aside enough of its differences to pass a budget and avert a government shutdown, LePage is needlessly sowing that doubt among state employees who don’t deserve a holiday season alarm that layoffs could be coming.
LePage said Monday his administration is starting to send layoff notices to 58 Maine state employees whose positions are federally funded. His reasoning? As it currently stands, the federal appropriations that fund the positions run out Jan. 15. And just in case no budget deal has cleared Congress by then, the LePage administration wants to err on the side of caution and abide by requirements outlined in its contract with the Maine State Employees Association that require laid-off employees receive notice of their dismissal “as soon as practicable.”
LePage “is not taking anything for granted,” according to his spokesman.
The 58 employees whose positions are now in limbo are the same employees who received layoff notices in October in the midst of the federal government shutdown. Most of them work in the state Department of Health and Human Services’ disability benefits determination office.
We don’t oppose ample notice for state employees, but this is likely a wasted effort on LePage’s part. The state employees’ contract allows him additional time to send layoff notices. LePage could have waited at least until he knew the outcome of a procedural Senate vote Tuesday and an expected final vote Wednesday.
Friday, the day the LePage administration sent an initial letter to the affected employees, was one day after the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a budget deal negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that sets spending levels for two years.
On Monday, the day the official layoff notices started to filter out, enough support was building in the Senate to proceed to debate and pass the budget bill. The 10-work-day notice requirement that applies to most layoffs wouldn’t kick in until Dec. 31. On top of that, LePage has options other than layoffs. If he really needed to, LePage could order three-day furloughs — these dismissals would be temporary in any circumstance, after all — closer to the date when funding was slated to end and once the budget situation became crystal clear.
Unfortunately, LePage’s layoff notices fit a pattern of unpredictable, unnecessary behavior surrounding government shutdowns that provide him with additional powers he doesn’t need.
During the October shutdown, LePage was the only governor in the nation to declare a civil emergency, supposedly to allow him additional flexibility and authority to manage the shutdown’s effects on state government. He also laid off the same employees who are again receiving layoff notices, although the Social Security Administration said it would later reimburse Disability Determination Services offices where staff members continued to work.
Interestingly, Maine state government came much closer to a state government shutdown in June as lawmakers and LePage wrangled over a two-year state budget to which the governor objected.
The Legislature and LePage were at an impasse until June 26, when lawmakers overrode LePage’s veto just two business days before July 1, the would-be start of the first state government shutdown in more than two decades.
Despite the tight time frame, the LePage administration never sent out layoff notices in advance of a possible state shutdown, although the administration — responsibly — took steps in the months leading up to July 1 to plan for the possibility of a shutdown.
LePage did a poor job in October explaining the need to declare a civil emergency. This time around, Maine people and, most of all, affected state employees deserve a better explanation from LePage, who appears to be exercising this authority with no clear reasoning or consistency of thought.