AUGUSTA — Legal advocates for low-income Mainers sued in federal court Thursday seeking to ensure that welfare benefits continue to flow in the event of a state government shutdown.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services requiring the DHHS to continue issuing benefits and receiving and processing applications for MaineCare, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Most state offices will close starting Saturday unless lawmakers finalize a state budget and then LePage immediately acts on the spending plan, either signing it or sending it back to the Legislature for a veto override vote.

The LePage administration has said state employees that provide “emergency services” will continue to work but has yet to release a list of worker classifications that meet that description. The governor has wide latitude to make the decision. While state police, prison guards and other law enforcement are likely to remain on the job, LePage has also suggested that state parks will be staffed during a shutdown.

“The governor has repeatedly stated that he will ‘do no harm’ to Maine’s elderly and disabled,” Jack Comart, an attorney with Maine Equal Justice Partners, said in a statement. “If the governor can protect state parks from vandalism during a state shut down, we hope that he will also protect Maine’s most vulnerable.”

The lawsuit was filed by Maine Equal Justice Partners and Valerie Wicks, an attorney with the Portland law firm Johnson, Webbert and Young.

Legislative leaders appear close to striking a deal on the budget to send the bill to the House and Senate floors by Friday. But LePage vowed again Thursday morning to wait up to the full 10 days allowed him under the law to review bills – thereby triggering a shutdown – if the budget increases sales or lodging taxes without enough income tax cuts.

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