AUGUSTA – Leaders of the state employees union and Gov. Paul LePage escalated their criticism of each other Monday after holding a closed-door meeting about the prospect of a government shutdown.
In a written statement, LePage accused the attorney representing the Maine State Employees Association of “lying” when he claimed that the administration had instructed some state officials to prepare for an “imminent” shutdown of state government.
The union’s president stood by the claim and said LePage disrespected the union negotiators at the meeting.
Last week, the Maine State Employees Association invoked a statutory requirement that the administration meet with union leaders within 10 days to bargain the terms and impact of a shutdown, which could occur if the Legislature and LePage fail to enact a two-year state budget by the start of the next fiscal year, July 1.
That meeting happened Monday morning, according to Tim Belcher, the attorney representing the union. Belcher said the governor attended the meeting for about six minutes before leaving.
The meeting continued after LePage left, but Belcher said the administration’s negotiator refused to discuss contingency plans for the first shutdown of state services since 1991.
Belcher told the Portland Press Herald last week that the union requested the meeting in response to “very credible reports” from employees that the administration has already directed state agencies to begin planning for a shutdown.
Belcher would not identify the agencies in which the shutdown plans were discussed or say how many agencies had those discussions.
Ginette Rivard, president of the Maine State Employees Association, said, “We stand by the credible reports we cited from members about agencies planning for a shutdown.”
The LePage administration has denied that such planning efforts are under way. He reiterated that position in a press statement that recounted the meeting.
“I, as the Chief Executive of the State, have had no plan to shut down state government,” the statement read. “It did not come from the executive branch. Why are you scaring people?”
LePage also said the union is “spreading fear and misinformation.” In his letter to union negotiators, he challenged the union about its sources.
“Since you refuse to provide me with evidence to support your claim that the executive branch issued the directive, I can only conclude that the MSEA is spreading gossip about a shutdown as a ploy to seek political leverage,” LePage wrote.
The prospect of a shutdown has loomed since LePage, a Republican, proposed a $6.3 billion budget in early January. Democrats, who have majorities in the House and Senate, are now working to change LePage’s proposal, which contains unpopular spending cuts, including a $200 million suspension of aid to towns and cities.
Belcher said the governor’s press statement reflected the tone of the meeting.
“He was angry,” Belcher said. “I’m not going to get down in the gutter with him and trade insults.”
Belcher said the purpose of the meeting was to begin bargaining the effects of a shutdown and to discuss which “nonessential” services would be affected.
Belcher said Monday’s meeting did not satisfy the statutory requirement to bargain the terms of a shutdown.
“The state is refusing to talk to us about this,” he said. “Frankly, it’s inconceivable that they’re not planning about this. They need to talk to us.”
MaryAnne Turowski, the union’s legislative liaison, said Monday that state employees take the prospect of a shutdown very seriously.
Turowski, who was the union’s president during the 16-day shutdown in 1991, said employees either weren’t paid or their paychecks were delayed.
“There are very real consequences for state employees, some of whom live paycheck to paycheck,” she said.
Most state agencies ceased operations during the 1991 shutdown. Prisons and state-run hospitals continued to operate, as did the Maine State Police and other emergency personnel.
Progress in this year’s budget negotiations between Democrats and Republicans has been limited, at least publicly.
The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn June 19. A new budget must be enacted by July 1 to avert a shutdown that closes down “nonessential” state services. State law requires the administration to negotiate with the union to determine which agencies or services would be affected.
The administration has said that LePage has proposed a balanced budget and it’s up to the Legislature to enact it. According to Belcher, the governor reiterated that point during the meeting with union representatives.
“He told us to tell the Democrats to pass his budget,” Belcher said.
The political dynamic in 1991 was similar to the current one: a Republican governor, John McKernan Jr., and a Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: