AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage declared a civil emergency Wednesday because of the federal government shutdown, but the implications were unclear and his declaration drew swift criticism.
The governor’s office said the declaration is intended to enable the administration to minimize the financial impact on the state and its federally funded employees. But officials did not specifically identify how LePage intends to use an executive power that allows him to suspend state rules or regulations that “prevent, hinder and delay effective management of the emergency,” according to state law.
Democratic leaders were suspicious of the declaration, calling on LePage to outline his plans for his new authority. The union representing state employees, nearly 3,000 of whom face temporary layoffs because of the shutdown, called it an overreach of power.
“The failure of leadership in Washington, D.C., has resulted in a federal shutdown, preventing the flow of federal money to Maine,” LePage said in the news release announcing the declaration. “Unfortunately, this means that a large number of our federally funded state employees may have to be laid off.”
Democrats questioned why the Republican governor would give himself additional power, and how he intends to use it.
Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, described the civil emergency as confusing and “a diversionary tactic.”
“I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” she told the Portland Press Herald. “He can put anything he wants down on paper. I’m not sure what powers he’s creating or trying to exercise.”
A civil emergency doesn’t give LePage any additional spending authority, which is tightly governed by the Maine Constitution. It does allow him to suspend some rules and regulations, but the administration would not say which ones it has in mind.
Carlisle McLean, LePage’s chief legal counsel, said the declaration wasn’t made in anticipation of “anything that the public isn’t already aware of,” a reference to the shutdown’s accumulating effects on state employees and agencies.
McLean said the administration initially believed that the shutdown would be over quickly, but since Oct. 1 it “has snowballed beyond what any of us expected.”
Maine and other states are beginning to feel the impact of the federal shutdown because their operations and staffing are intertwined with federal money.
Maine has 2,739 state workers whose positions are fully or partially funded by the federal government. On Monday, the administration announced 52 temporary layoffs at the Disability Determination Office in Winthrop, in addition to furloughs of four employees in the Department of Health and Human Services and three in the Department of Labor.
Last week, 406 technicians in the Maine Army and Air National Guard were furloughed, although most were later recalled.
In a letter to employees, LePage referred to three meetings with the union, but it wasn’t clear if the administration expected the unions to help alleviate the shutdown’s effects.
“Our administration met three times with the union since Friday to express our concerns, and we have been seeking solutions to minimize the impact on our state employees,” LePage’s letter said.
MaryAnne Turowski, legislative liaison for the Maine State Employees Association, said she attended the meetings with LePage but no proposals were made by the governor.
She said, “We’re in the dark as to what he’s talking about. We certainly think this is an overreach.”
The union released a more critical statement Wednesday night.
“Gov. LePage is the only governor in the United States to take the drastic step of proclaiming a civil emergency in response to the federal shutdown that his Tea Party colleagues at the national level created,” Ginette Rivard, also with the union, said in the statement.
Administration officials wouldn’t say whether more furloughs are coming. State employees and the administration have been bracing for that possibility.
The administration said it is still bound to the terms of its collective bargaining agreement with the state employees union during a civil emergency.
State law authorizes the governor to declare a civil emergency. Such a declaration isn’t unprecedented.
In 2009, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci declared a civil emergency in response to an outbreak of a deadly flu virus. That allowed the state to hire temporary clinicians in a mass vaccination drive.
In 1991, Republican Gov. John McKernan declared a civil emergency during a budget dispute that shut down state government, temporarily putting 10,000 state employees out of work.
Democratic legislative leaders quickly called on the governor to lay out his plan to use powers that allow him to suspend certain rules or regulations in order to carry out state business. They expressed surprise that LePage had used the executive power.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said the “action gives the governor significant power to suspend any of the state’s laws. We want him to clearly lay out what he intends to do – which rules, statutes and laws he intends to suspend. We are calling for transparency, accountability and collaboration as we move forward.”
Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said in a prepared statement that he hopes the governor will work “toward a calm solution for the workers of Maine.”
“Actions like this are surprising and unsettling for Mainers,” Alfond said.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, issued a statement praising the action, although he did not elaborate on how it will help.
“I commend Governor LePage for taking this decisive and necessary action to ensure that the impact of the federal shutdown on federally funded state employees and to the state overall may be alleviated,” Fredette said in the statement.
Legislative leaders are scheduled to meet with LePage on Thursday morning to discuss the civil emergency and its implications.
Staff Writer Joe Lawlor contributed to this report.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: