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State Employees' Union Urges Lawmakers to Reach Budget Compromise

Mal Leary
Maine Public

Members of the Maine State Employees Association, the largest workers' union in the state, are gearing up for a possible state government shutdown if a budget agreement isn't reached in the next few days. The association is speaking out about the consequences, not only for thousands state workers, but for the state's economy.

At a State House news conference, several union members outlined what to expect if a partial state government shutdown begins July 1. If a new state budget is not in place, workers cannot be paid. They are not even permitted to show up at their offices, which will be closed.

But, under Gov. Paul LePage's emergency powers, he can order those he deems "essential" to come to work to perform certain functions. Even then, they won’t get paid for the work they do until a budget is in place. MSEA Vice President Dean Staffieri is a child protective supervisor who says he has no idea whether his staff will be ordered to work.

“If there is a contingency plan, the state hasn’t shared it with me or my case workers," said Staffieri. "I don’t know if we will be deemed emergency workers in order to work without pay, or be ordered to stay home without pay or if there will be a skeleton crew.”

He says the uncertainty has caused a lot of worry for workers, some of whom are actively looking for other jobs. MSEA staffer Mary Ann Turowski says the union has tried to get more information about which staff may be asked to work during a shutdown, but has been unsuccessful.

“We met yesterday with human resources and what they did say is they were going to view this in a narrow frame of emergency workers, but it would be up to the governor to determine that,” said Turowski.

Union members are also bracing for the economic effects a shutdown will have for their families if they are locked out of their jobs and aren't able to be paid.

“Like everyone else we have bills to pay like our mortgage and my student loan payment. Our grocery bills are another concern as my four year old son has a milk allergy and requires a dairy free diet and house," said Jonathan French, a civil engineer with the Department of Transportation. "If the state shuts down, we will most likely have to pay for our groceries using credit cards pushing us further into debt.”

The union released what it described as a "partial economic analysis" of a state shutdown once thousands of state workers are not receiving their paychecks. Union leaders estimate a loss of $2.5 million a day in direct and indirect economic activity just from 12,000 MSEA members alone.

But the ripple effects extend beyond state employees. During the 1991 shutdown, private contractors for the Department of Transportation had to layoff construction workers because the DOT could not pay them. Jane Gilbert, a retired state worker who was employed by DOT at the time of that shutdown, is convinced that the political showdown is all about Republicans' desire to repeal the three percent surtax on incomes over $200,000 a year. Something that Maine voters approved at the polls last fall.

“Despite all the rhetoric, all this is about is tax breaks for the rich," said Gilbert. "We need to hold that and remember that.”

Budget talks are supposed to continue over the weekend but even if an agreement is reached, LePage has said the only budget he would sign is the one put forth by House Republicans. Democrats have already rejected that plan.

Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon said the governor has made it clear to her that he will take the 10 days he's allowed to veto what he doesn't like. If he sticks by that position, there will be a partial shutdown of state government.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.