Monday, March 10, 2014
(Update - LePage lifted the civil emergency via press statement at 3:04 p.m.)
Gov. Paul LePage was the only governor to call a civil emergency as a response to the shutdown of federal government.
The shutdown is over. So why is Maine still under a civil emergency?
Adrienne Bennett, the governor's spokeswoman, said Thursday that the emergency remained in place “as an administrative tool” to ensure the “orderly transition back to normal government operations.” She neither specified how the emergency powers would make that process easier, nor when the governor planned to relinquish powers that allow him to suspend a broad array of rules and regulations.
Last week, LePage said the emergency was designed to help state workers get unemployment benefits quicker and to help the state manage the methodical drying up of federal money for 2,739 state employees. However, as of Friday, all those employees are back to work and the funding bill passed by Congress makes it clear that states will be reimbursed for any costs incurred to keep those employees working during the shutdown. The Maine Department of Labor has also indicated that few furloughed state employees will likely collect benefits and that there's a mechanism in place to make sure those who do will have to return their unemployment checks.
Yet the civil emergency endures. Also, the administration on Thursday continued to negotiate with the Maine State Employees Association over a preliminary agreement drafted during the federal shutdown. Again, the day after the shutdown, the administration and the union were in talks over a shutdown mitigation strategy for state employees, who began returning to work because the shutdown is over.
So far the administration hasn't done much to clarify the issue (No response yet from LePage's press office), except to say that they don't believe the current collective bargaining agreement is sufficient to get state employees back to work. The union disagrees.
On Thursday evening, the governor issued a release saying that the union was "dragging their feet," so it ordered employees back to work -- which is exactly what the union asked the administration to do in the first place.
And why is the union negotiating with LePage now that the shutdown is over? Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said Friday that the union wanted to show that it was willing to continue good-faith talks with the administration post-shutdown. Quint said the governor's statement Thursday night was "misleading Mainers" and that the administration sought additional concessions from the union that were no longer necessary and would have made it harder for furloughed employees to return to their original jobs.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the assistant House majority leader, said Friday that Democrats were suspicious of the emergency order from the beginning because the proclamation was broadly defined, it's end date undetermined.
"We're all going, 'What's up his sleeve, what's his ulterior motive?' " McCabe said. "It almost looks like he was trying to use this to negotiate with state employees, to hang this over their head."
McCabe added, "After seeing the whole political stunt in Cobscook, it strikes me, is he just governing through delusions at this point? It's scary. The only time he comes out is to do these bizarre media events on strange subjects, like a boat launch that's no longer closed still being closed."
For historical context, below is former Republican Gov. John McKernan's civil emergency proclamation from 1991, an order he issued to deal with the shutdown of state government. It's pretty specific and includes an end date. Here's LePage's proclamation.
The Legislature can end a civil emergency with a two-thirds majority vote.
Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.