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

AUGUSTA — 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.

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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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However, Democratic leaders and the union that represents state employees remain highly skeptical of the governor’s motives, showing the tension and distrust that have existed since LePage took office in 2011.

Legislative leaders met with LePage on Thursday to discuss the surprise proclamation that he made late Wednesday. A civil emergency gives LePage broad power to suspend state rules or regulations, power that he said will help cushion the impact on workers as the budget stalemate in Washington slowly cuts off revenue to the state.

Other states are confronting layoffs of federally funded employees, but so far, no other governor has declared an emergency. LePage said he discussed the furlough issue with other Republican governors, but their ability to declare a civil emergency varied by state.

Maine has 2,739 state employees whose positions receive some amount of federal funding. Nearly 100 have been laid off as the federal shutdown has blocked funding for certain state operations. LePage said the emergency will allow the state to get unemployment benefits faster for furloughed employees.

“It is my goal, solely, to get money into (state employees’) pockets as quickly as possible because we don’t have the federal funds,” LePage said. “We can push them over to unemployment and they can get some revenue.”

But Democratic leaders remained frustrated that LePage didn’t provide more specifics about his executive order or when he plans to end it.

“I think this is another example of the governor going it alone, governing by crisis,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick.

Eves said LePage angled for a shutdown of state government earlier this year when he rejected a bipartisan budget agreement reached by the Legislature. Lawmakers overrode his veto.

“This is a governor (who) tried to shut down state government during the last budget process,” he said. “The tea party Republicans in Congress have effectively done that.”

The union representing state employees is also suspicious. Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, called the proclamation the “nuclear option.”

While LePage and union officials have discussed strategies to deal with the federal shutdown, Quint said an emergency order that could be used to circumvent the collective bargaining agreement wasn’t discussed until Wednesday night, after it was announced.

Quint has said there are concerns that the administration could use the order to bypass 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 on Monday would have to be brought back, then laid off again because of the notice requirement in the collective bargaining agreement.

The workers wouldn’t be able to collect unemployment benefits until after the second layoff. He also said that some of the employees were being paid with money from the governor’s contingency fund.

LePage dismissed claims by the union that his order is a power grab.

“Read the Constitution,” he said. “It’s an authority the governor has in a state of emergency. I believe that having over 2,700 people who work for the state who rely on federal funds for their paycheck is an emergency. ... If that’s an overreach, I overreached. I think it’s necessary.”

(Continued on page 2)

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