October 11, 2013

Bill Nemitz: LePage, Collins’ behavior beyond baffling

Their responses to crises leave jaws gaping.

So you thought things couldn’t get any wackier in our state and federal governments?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the invisible emergency and the disappearing deadline!

We begin with the former.

Wednesday afternoon, an email titled “Governor Declares Civil Emergency to Minimize Fiscal Impacts of Federal Shutdown” went out to reporters and editors all over Maine, the vast majority of whom immediately snapped to attention and put on their “Breaking News” hats.

The problem was, after reading and rereading the press release top to bottom, nobody could figure out what it meant.

At least we weren’t alone: All over Augusta, politicians and bureaucrats alike huddled over the Guv’s carefully (or not) chosen words.

Then they labored hard to craft a response in case the media asked what they thought about LePage’s promise to “exercise my authority to suspend strict compliance with laws or rules that prevent, hinder, and delay effective management of the emergency.”

My hands-down favorite reaction?

“I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” the never-shy Attorney General Janet Mills told Portland Press Herald staffer Joe Lawlor.

Now let’s be clear: The federal shutdown is indeed a big problem that will only get bigger for the states the longer it goes on. And LePage, while being the only governor in the nation to ratchet it up to “civil emergency” status, has good reason to worry about all those state paychecks that rely at least in part on federal funds that are no longer flowing north.

Still, when LePage suddenly starts getting all warm and fuzzy with state workers – “During this very difficult time, my thoughts are with our hard-working state employees and their families who have been adversely affected by this unprecedented federal shutdown” – I can’t help recalling that time last year when he called those same workers “as corrupt as you can be.”

“Believe me, we’re trying every day to get them to go to work,” he added back then. “But it’s hard.”

I’d hoped Thursday morning, after the Legislature’s Democratic leaders finally sat down with LePage to hear a little more about his newly expanded powers, we’d all have a better handle on what this “emergency” entails and what exactly the Guv plans to do about it.

Didn’t happen.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said efforts to lend a little definition to LePage’s proclamation were “met with a cold shoulder.”

That leaves all of Maine, as usual, waiting with bated breath to see what the Big Guy has up his sleeve this time: A helping hand? Or, as many state workers have good reason to fear, is it a clenched fist?

Next up is the disappearing deadline, brought to us in dazzling doublespeak by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

Collins, in an interview Wednesday with Press Herald Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller, pooh-poohed all this talk about the U.S. economy (not to mention the global markets) going into a death spiral if the federal debt ceiling isn’t raised by Oct. 17.

To be sure, Collins said, reneging on the nation’s financial obligations would have “dire consequences.” She added, however, that the Oct. 17 deadline fails to take into account the U.S. Treasury’s ability during past debt crises “to shift obligations or payments ... in a way that gives us a little more time.”

I’m told Collins was furious with the Press Herald over Miller’s story. Her spokesman, Kevin Kelley, complained in an email that it was “misleading” and that we were the only news organization in the universe with the gall to report that she’s “skeptical” about anything terrible happening come midnight on Oct. 17.

(Continued on page 2)

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