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Maine governor takes hard-nosed approach to federal shutdown

By Dave Sherwood

AUGUSTA, Maine (Reuters) - Maine Governor Paul LePage, a Republican, took a novel approach to the partial federal government shutdown instigated by conservative members his own party, citing it as proof states "cannot count on the federal government to solve our problems."

LePage last week declared a civil state of emergency in Maine in response to the shutdown — the first and only governor in the country to do so — pointing to the need to take action in the face of lost federal revenue.

The move, which grants the governor broad powers to temporarily suspend laws and regulations, left opponents uneasy and stood in stark contrast to Maine's more measured Senators, Independent Angus King and Republican Susan Collins, who helped broker the deal announced on Wednesday to end the debt crisis and the 16-day shutdown in Washington.

LePage, who enjoys support from the small-government Tea Party faction, has long espoused the need to reduce federal influence in Maine, a state dependent on federal grant funding for between 39 and 43 percent of its budget, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Nearly 3,000 state employees receive paychecks from the federal government, the LePage administration said.

Last spring, LePage led Maine to join the ranks of 26 states with Republican governors or Republican-controlled legislatures that refused added Medicaid funding under the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature legislative achievement, claiming the uncertainty of long-term federal funding.

Now, LePage points to the shutdown as proof he was right. "As challenging as these times are right now, we must seriously question how beneficial it is to depend on the federal government for so much," he said in his weekly radio address.

But his declaration of emergency, which allows him to temporarily suspend state laws and regulations, was met with skepticism by Democrats and the state worker's union, which includes many furloughed employees.

"Paul LePage is the last person we should trust with unchecked power," said Democratic party chairman Ben Grant. Democrats had called on the governor to specify which laws he planned to suspend, but LePage refused.

Worker's groups feared the governor, who early in his administration made headlines when he removed a mural celebrating workers from the Department of Labor building, might wield his declaration to negate collective bargaining rights.

Opposition fears were deepened when Maine political blogger Mike Tipping on Tuesday released a recording in which LePage told a conservative woman's group that "we exercised the civil emergency, which means that their contract is null and void until after the crisis," a reference to union rights.

Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, a Democrat, said the statement had done nothing more than "breed skepticism and mistrust."

Shortly after the recording was released, however, LePage announced a breakthrough in negotiations and an agreement with the Maine State Employees Association over compensation and benefits during the furlough.

(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Tim Dobbyn)

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