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October 15, 2013

Photo: Steve Mistler/staff writer

Gov. Paul LePage speaks to the media after a meeting he held with Democratic leaders in Augusta on Thursday to discuss his reasons for declaring a civil emergency because of the federal government shutdown.

LePage stands alone in taking emergency power

By Steve Mistler
smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Gov. Paul LePage is so far the only governor to grant himself the emergency power to suspend state laws and regulations as a strategy to deal with the partial shutdown of the federal government.

Leaders of other states have taken different steps to deal with the stalemate in Washington and loss of federal funding, and some have used state money to keep federally funded employees and programs working. The varied response by states appears to reflect differences in constitutional authority and the political will of governors and state legislatures. While the partial federal government shutdown has been a growing challenge to all states as it constricts the flow of federal funding for state-run programs, Maine’s state government relies on federal dollars more than most.

Federal grants for health, transportation education and other programs comprise between 39 percent and 43.9 percent of Maine’s budget, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Pew Center on the States. For the average state, federal funding accounts for 34.7 percent of those programs.

In Maine, LePage has deployed the sweeping powers of a civil emergency proclamation, a law that affords him the ability to suspend state rules or regulations, as well as seize property, prescribe evacuation routes and halt the sale of alcoholic beverages and explosives, among other things.

All but three states endow their governors with emergency powers via constitution or law, according to The Council of State Governments. But a governor’s authority under such laws varies by state.

In most instances, the laws are crafted to help a state government respond to physical emergencies, such as a natural disaster, disease outbreak or attack. Governors have used the authority in other situations, however.

In 2007, Maine Democratic Gov. John Baldacci declared a civil emergency to bolster the forest products industry with fast-tracked fuel tax reimbursements amid soaring diesel prices.

In 2011, Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a fiscal emergency initiative that allowed state-appointed managers to take over failing schools and communities. The law was repealed by voters last year, but Snyder signed a similar measure a month later.

LePage’s proclamation has made Democrats and the Maine State Employees Association skeptical and nervous about his intentions.

On Friday, a day after LePage said the order is intended to help furloughed state employees, emails from worried workers began trickling into the Portland Press Herald. Some workers suspected that massive layoffs were imminent. Others worried they would be laid off only to be replaced by temporary workers.

The Maine State Employees Association received more emails and phone calls, Chris Quint, the executive director of the union, said Friday. “People are even more nervous because of (the declaration),” he said.

Quint said his organization worries that the declaration gives LePage power to circumvent the collective bargaining agreement, including layoff notice requirements and “bumping rights,” which allow more senior employees to avoid layoffs by “bumping” employees with less time of service out of their jobs.

LePage acknowledged that the notice requirements were hindering employees’ receipt of benefits. He told reporters that the 52 employees who were laid off at the Social Security disability claims center in Winthrop last week would have to be brought back, then laid off again because of the notice requirement in the collective bargaining agreement.

LePage said that the emergency declaration will help ensure that 2,739 federally funded state workers can quickly obtain unemployment benefits if they’re furloughed.

While LePage is the only one to declare an emergency, governors around the country are dealing with the challenge of federally funded state workers.

Arkansas has already laid off 673 state employees and is bracing to furlough 4,000 more if the shutdown continues. Arizona has laid off more than 240 employees, while Virginia and Washington have furloughed 300 and 400, respectively. North Carolina has already notified 4,500 human services workers that they could be furloughed or have their hours cut.

Other states have used their own dollars to prevent layoffs.

In Maryland, the state legislature appropriated $100 million to keep 11,000 employees working through the shutdown. In Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has used contingency funds to avoid laying off nearly 120 state workers.

In Maine, LePage said last week that he planned to use his contingency fund to temporarily pay the salaries of some of the 52 employees furloughed at the disability claims center in Winthrop. Other short-term strategies may exist, such as tapping Maine’s approximately $42 million budget stabilization, or rainy day, fund. But there are statutory limits on the use of that money and, so far, neither state lawmakers nor LePage have floated such a proposal.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 791-6345 or at:smistler@pressherald.comTwitter: @stevemistler





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