Maine’s Senate Majority Leader, who is also running for Maine 2nd Congressional seat, suggested Tuesday that the Legislature convene in special session as soon as possible and dip into the state’s cash reserves to soften the effects in Maine of the federal government shutdown.
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, also suggested that Gov. Paul LePage is making the situation in Maine worse by sending state employees to the unemployment system for financial benefits that cannot be recouped from the federal government. The feds have promised to repay states any money used to cover federal salaries and programs during the shutdown, though LePage has said he doesn’t trust the federal government to keep its word.
Jackson suggested in a press release that the state could use its so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” which is officially called the Budget Stabilization Fund, to keep state workers whose salaries are supported by federal dollars on the job. Since Jackson’s idea involves a new appropriation of money, it requires legislative approval.
“No state worker should lose a single day or a single hour on the job for the people of Maine,” Jackson said. “If the governor would simply work with others, both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature, we could provide money within 48 hours for any state worker affected by the federal shutdown.”
In the past, the budget stabilization fund has been used for just that: stabilizing the budget when revenues fall short of the cost of existing programs and services. As of Tuesday afternoon, the fund had a balance of $59,726,083.51, according to the state treasurer’s office. (When finance folks answer a question, they answer it to the penny.)
How much it would cost to avoid layoffs, or at least cover benefits and insurance premiums for laid-off workers, was a major focus of the LePage administration on Tuesday. LePage told legislative leaders during a meeting Tuesday morning that the full effects of the shutdown were still being explored. Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, a labor union which represents 13,000 state workers, said that issue also lies at the center of talks between the union and executive branch that started shortly after the shutdown went into effect on October 1.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, told me after the meeting that the prospect of convening a special session of the Legislature was discussed during the meeting but has not moved forward because, according to Thibodeau, no one has brought forward a plan that would find bipartisan support and ultimately, LePage’s signature.
“We would do it if we had a plan,” said Thibodeau of a special session.
I asked Thibodeau and House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, whether the budget stabilization fund could be a source of revenue, and he said that would not be financially prudent.
“If we have zero dollars in that fund, our bond rating is affected,” said Thibodeau, referring to the state’s ability to secure credit at a good price. “[The ratings agencies] have been very clear that they are very uncomfortable with the lack of money that’s in that fund. To simply reach in and take that out doesn’t come without consequences.”
Jackson said he doesn’t trust LePage and state workers shouldn’t either. LePage has said repeatedly that his focus is keeping state employees on the job wherever possible, though he has also been clear that he will not use state dollars to in-fill for federal money that has dried up because of the shutdown.
“Frankly, if I were a state worker I would be very wary of this governor’s motives,” said Jackson. “Why not have the Legislature and the governor act in concert, act appropriately and calmly and demonstrate how an orderly government operates. Maybe Congress could take a lesson from how Maine runs the people’s business.”