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LePage Orders State Government Hiring Freeze

Mal Leary
Gov. Paul LePage

By Christopher Cousins, Bangor Daily News

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has ordered a hiring freeze across the executive branch of state government “until further notice” in preparation for cuts he wants to make in a state budget proposal that’s due in January 2017.

Documents obtained Monday by the Bangor Daily News indicate that the hiring freeze was ordered in a July 18 memo to LePage’s top administrators.

“Beginning immediately, no positions will be posted by the Bureau of Human Resources, nor should they be posted by agencies electronically or in print,” reads the memo. “Positions that are already posted may be filled.”

In a July 18 email to a number of state employees, Joyce Oreskovich, director of the Bureau of Human Resources, wrote that “the governor will want to hear from commissioners if/when they want to fill any positions.” Italics appeared in the original email.

Neither Oreskovich nor the governor’s communication staff responded to questions from the BDN on Monday.

The hiring freeze comes as LePage has been talking publicly about making personnel cuts in state government and after a memo was leaked last week that indicated LePage wants to reduce the state’s workforce to 9,500 employees. That would be down from 13,286 authorized positions, of which 11,808 are filled. LePage has said the downsizing can be accomplished by cutting vacant positions.

Reducing the state’s workforce has long been a focal point for the conservative governor, who has consistently argued that state government is bloated and that leaving unfilled positions funded year after year amounts to a slush fund that legislators use for pet projects.

However, LePage also has favored using some of that money. Earlier this year, he backed the use of surplus salary account funds, which totaled $28 million at the time, to give raises to law enforcement officials.

According to lawmakers, he later proposed using money from the same account to give raises to employees of two state-run psychiatric hospitals but later changed his position and said he needed the money so his administration could negotiate union contracts in good faith.

In late June, after legislative leaders refused LePage’s call to hold a special session to find new funding sources for four enacted bills, the governor issued an executive order in which he said he was considering covering some of the cost of the bills with a hiring freeze in the Department of Health and Human Services. The July memo apparently expands on that notion.

The State Bureau of Human Resources has listings for numerous direct hire and open competitive jobs. Application periods for many of the positions are identified as being open indefinitely, meaning until they are filled, while others have closing dates, most of them in August.

LePage has ordered that before any new vacancies can be filled, department directors must submit a “ Hiring Justification Form” to his chief of staff, John McGough. The form asks for justification for the hiring as well as “identification of alternatives for accomplishing the agency’s mission without additional hiring.” The form appears to require LePage’s signature.

This isn’t the first time LePage has asserted his authority over state hiring. In June 2015, after the state budget was enacted over his veto, he told commissioners and agency heads that they would need his written approval for any hiring on a temporary basis.

Mary Anne Turowski, the Maine State Employees Association’s director of politics and legislation, said the union had heard talk of the hiring freeze but had not seen the memo from Oreskovich until being asked about it Monday by the BDN. Turowski, who has previously said cutting state government to 9,500 employees would “cripple” some state services, said there are numerous essential positions throughout state government, such as police and corrections officers, that need to be filled on an ongoing basis.

“When staffing starts to dip, then overtime goes up,” she said. “We’ve got to cover these shifts somehow.”

LePage’s 2018-19 two-year state budget proposal is due to be submitted to the 128th Legislature when it convenes in January. The budget bill, which will be reviewed for months by the Legislature, is LePage’s best vehicle for making major structural changes to state government, which he has sought to do since taking office in 2011.

Past legislatures opposed many of LePage’s initiatives — such as welfare reform, income tax cuts, changes to the sales tax and the elimination of municipal revenue sharing — which has caused LePage to veto the state biennial budget in each of the past two cycles. The Legislature overrode the vetoes both times.

Governmental hiring freezes in Maine are not uncommon, but it is rare for them to be implemented when the state’s revenue stream exceeds forecasts, as is the case this year. With state revenues lagging throughout most of his eight years in office, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who preceded LePage, authorized them on multiple occasions.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News