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Democrats Question Maine Gov's Civil Emergency Declaration
10/10/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

On the second day under Gov. Paul LePage's civil emergency declaration, suspicious Democratic leaders and state union officials are questioning the governor's true motives. The governor says he's doing it so he can quickly lay off up to 2,700 state employees whose federally-subsidized paychecks are being withheld due to the spending stalemate in Washington. That way, he says, they can get immediate access to unemployment benefits. But as A.J. Higgins reports, no one is exactly sure how the maneuver will affect these employees in the days ahead.

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Gov. Paul LePage told reporters at the State Hosue that he can't control the events that have shaped the federal shutdown in Washington. But he says he can act to deal with the effects the stalemate is having on Maine. And that includes layoffs for more than 2,700 state workers whose positions are either completely or partially funded by the federal government.

So far, LePage says 100 workers have been affected by the loss of federal payroll checks. And he says that could just be the beginning. "If this goes on beyond, say, the next 10 days, you'll see all 2,700 out there," LePage says.

To help his administration deal with the changing situation, LePage says the civil emergency declaration will allow him to suspend state rules and regulations that control the layoff process. And he says state workers could have access to unemployment benefits.

"It is my goal, solely, to get money in state employees' pockets as quickly as possible because we don't have the federal funds," LePage says. "So we can push them over to the unemployment, they have the five-day wait, then they can get some revenue. Hopefully this will be resolved quickly."

LePage says the declaration allows the state to waive the requirement that these workers look for other jobs in order to receive unemployment benefits. But state workers - who have had an uneasy relationship with the governor - feel as though LePage is simply trying to bypass provisions of the state's collective bargaining agreement.

"We feel that this action right here is basically instead of negotiations, he's dropped the nuclear bomb on this one," says
Chris Quint, the executive director of the Maine State Employees Association. "This is unnecessary and unwarranted and we really wish it hadn't happened."

LePage flatly denies the union's claim. "We are doing everything humanly possible to honor the collective bargaining agreement - we want to work with them," LePage says.

Democratic leaders also share the union's suspicions of LePage's motives, saying they want to know what rules and regulations the governor wants to suspend. Thus far, LePage has rejected the Democrats' request to be included in the decision-making process.

Anne Haskell is a Portland Democrat and the assistant Senate Majority Leader. She says she'd welcome the chance to share with the governor her own ideas about handling the impacts of the federal shutdown.

"We'd like very much to do that, so that we can understand, not just once you've made a decision, here's my decision, but here's the problem we're facing and see if there are solutions that we can work on together," Haskell says. "That's always been my understanding of how government works."

House Speaker Mark Eves questions the governor's state plan to get workers onto unemployment, and then hire them all back when the shutdown ends. And he's not buying it.

"You have to consider: Does that pass the straight-face test?" Eves says. "Again, this is a governor that tried to shut our state down. I think that's widely known and widely accepted. What has happened in Congress, effectively, has shut our federal government down, so I think it's very important that the governor communicates very clearly."

"This idea that this is some sort of conspiracy that the governor has, or some sort of plan that he has to do something bad, is just really ridiculous," says House Republic leader Ken Fredette.

Fredette rejects suspicions voiced by union and Democratic leaders, and insists that LePage is just trying to serve the best interests of the state and its workers. The governor plans to meet again Tuesday with leaders on both sides.


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