October 11, 2013

LePage declared emergency to help state workers, he says

He says it will help laid-off workers get benefits faster, but the union is skeptical of his motives.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday that he declared a civil emergency to make sure that federally funded state employees can receive unemployment benefits if they are laid off because of the partial shutdown of the federal government.

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

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House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Thursday that Democrats are concerned by Gov. Paul LePage’s rejection of Democratic amendments to his emergency declaration and its lack of specificity.

Steve Mistler/Staff Writer

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LePage said he will use the proclamation to remove work search requirements for furloughed employees who seek unemployment benefits.

“I don’t want them to go look for work,” he said. “We need them. They’re trained and they’re important to us.”

When told that LePage was trying to get unemployment benefits to state employees faster, Quint said it was the first he had heard of it.

“If that’s the case then we appreciate that, quite frankly,” he said. “As the director of the organization that represents these workers, I would have hoped and expected that prior to right now when I’m talking to you, the press, that I would have that information as to why this is happening.”

The Maine State Employees Association has frequently clashed with LePage during his term in office. In 2011, state employees flooded into the State House to protest reductions in pay and benefits and pension changes. LePage’s supporters tried to counter the protests, holding signs that read “collective bankrupting” and “union greed.”

The union has also contested policy initiatives and “right to work” legislation supported by the governor, saying the changes would erode their collective bargaining rights.

LePage has made unions a rhetorical target, often referring to their leaders as “union bosses.”

Unions have worked to oppose LePage, spending significant money in 2012 to wipe out the Republican majority in the Legislature that the governor had in his first two years in office.

There were signals Thursday that the emergency order plays into the ongoing debate in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, the Senate minority leader, said the civil emergency in Maine was caused by President Obama’s refusal to negotiate with House Republicans.

Obama has refused to bargain with tea party-backed House Republicans because they have called for defunding the administration’s health care law as part of a bill to fund federal government. As the standoff has continued, House Republicans have run incremental funding bills designed to force Democrats and Obama to the bargaining table.

Thibodeau noted that the civil emergency may not be necessary if the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate agrees to reimburse furloughed federal employees, including those in state agencies, when the shutdown ends. The House approved such a measure last week, but the Senate has not voted on it.

Under Maine law, the civil emergency gives LePage authority to suspend state rules or regulations that “prevent, hinder and delay effective management of the emergency.” The administration would not say which rules and regulations it has in mind.

It doesn’t give LePage any additional spending authority, which is tightly governed by the Maine Constitution.

In 2009, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci declared a civil emergency because of 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.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:smistler@pressherald.com

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