Monday, March 10, 2014
By Steve Mistler email@example.com
State House Bureau
AUGUSTA — The union representing state employees has requested a meeting with the LePage administration to discuss plans to prepare for an "inevitable" shutdown of state government.
On Monday, 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 Gov. Paul LePage fail to enact a two-year state budget by the start of the next fiscal year, July 1.
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.
Progress in 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 "non-essential" state services. State law requires the administration to negotiate with the union to determine which agencies or services would be affected.
Tim Belcher, an attorney representing the union, said Monday that the request to meet with the administration stemmed from "very credible reports" from employees that the administration has already directed state agencies to begin planning for the first shutdown of state government since a 16-day suspension of services in 1991.
Belcher said the union has heard multiple reports that the administration has described a shutdown this year as "inevitable."
"Over and over again, we've heard from our members that the state is planning a shutdown," Belcher said. "We recently heard very credible reports from people who would know that state agencies had in fact been told to start planning for a shutdown."
Belcher would not identify which agencies, or how many, have been issued such a planning directive.
The union submitted a Freedom of Access Act request seeking documents from the administration related to a potential shutdown.
The administration said it is perplexed by the union's letter, with the budget effectively in the hands of the Legislature. Adrienne Bennett, LePage's spokeswoman, said Monday that the administration has given no order to form a strategy for a shutdown of government operations.
"The governor has already proposed a balanced budget, and we hope Democratic leadership will focus their attention on the budget process before the administration is faced with the dire situation of a state government shutdown," Bennett said.
She said the governor's proposal meets the constitutional requirement for a balanced budget. The budget was constructed to protect a $400 million tax-cut package enacted by the Legislature in 2011, when Republicans held the majority.
Democratic leaders have said LePage's budget is a non-starter and would cause a massive tax shift to property owners.
Democratic lawmakers have proposed bills that, taken together, could come close to plugging an estimated $800 million funding gap for the next two fiscal years. However, several of those proposals include tax increases that have encountered fierce opposition from Republicans.
Republican support will be needed for the Legislature to secure two-thirds support and a veto-proof budget.
Democratic leaders are pressing LePage on several fronts, including linking the expansion of taxpayer-funded health care for low-income Mainers to the governor's plan to pay off $484 million owed to Maine's hospitals.
Democratic leaders also called on the governor Monday to release $104 million in bonds that voters have approved.
The state employees union, historically a political ally of Democrats, has repeatedly tangled with LePage and has filed several complaints against the administration with the Maine Labor Relations Board. The union continues to seek a new labor agreement with the administration. That process is in mediation.
Belcher said the letter sent Monday is not related to the union's pursuit of a new contract.
"Our members are very concerned about whether they're going to be able to pay their bills and continue to provide the services that they're paid to deliver," Belcher said. He said that if the administration is girding for a state shutdown, the union should be involved.
"We want the state to talk to us," he said. "We want to figure out how to do this together."
The shutdown in 1991 suspended non-emergency state services for 16 days. The political dynamic was similar to the current one: a Republican governor, John McKernan Jr., and a Democratic-controlled Legislature.
During the run-up to and the aftermath of the shutdown, the political parties blamed each other for the lack of an agreement on a balanced budget. The same type of rhetorical battle started early in this session.
In late February, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, predicted a "real battle" between the parties and said "a government shutdown is something that's a possibility."
Democrats pounced on Fredette's comments, saying such talk was emblematic of the "do-nothing politics" in Congress.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: