AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s longtime political antagonists, including the state employees union and Democratic legislative leaders, called his declaration of a civil emergency a nuclear option power grab, but some more detached political observers in Maine described it as an act of strong leadership ahead of a looming catastrophe.

LePage has been widely criticized for his Wednesday evening proclamation of a civil emergency, with barbs sprouting from state legislators, the state employees union and liberal MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow. But with so much uncertainty about how long Congress will take to reopen the federal government and how that will affect Mainers, some say LePage’s aggressive action is wholly appropriate.

“This is certainly understandable from the governor’s perspective,” said Mark Brewer, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. “If I were to put myself in his shoes, I’d want to give myself the power to deal with this shutdown. … In this situation he has to be able to play it by ear.”

LePage said Wednesday and Thursday that his central motivation for proclaiming a civil emergency was to protect the livelihoods of the approximately 2,700 state employees whose salaries are supported to some degree by federal dollars. He also seeks to protect the budget with his refusal to fill federal funding voids with state resources because, LePage said, he is not confident that the federal government will reimburse Maine when it reopens.

“The State of Maine simply cannot fill the financial gap created by the prolonged loss of federal dollars,” wrote LePage in a letter to state employees on Wednesday. “It would be unlawful for the state to ask our federally funded employees to continue to work without having the authority to pay them. … Please know that our administration is working tirelessly to assist our employees and to allow the continuation of programs and services to the citizens of Maine.”

The Maine State Employees Association, which on Wednesday called LePage’s proclamation an “unnecessary power grab,” conceded Wednesday that LePage may well have good intentions but that his administration’s lack of communication with the union is creating doubt. MSEA Local 1989 Executive Director Chris Quint said Thursday that he and others in the union met with LePage on Friday and with some of the state’s human resources officials this week, but that those meetings were unproductive.

“They have been uneventful meetings,” said Quint. “Normally when we meet with them, we expect to talk about ideas and solutions. They’ve given us absolutely nothing in the way of information. We had no heads up about that this nuclear option civil emergency declaration was coming and they have not been willing to sit down and talk with us about solutions.”

Chief among the union’s concerns, according to Quint, is finding ways to avoid layoffs or furloughs altogether, and in the event that layoffs are unavoidable, to ensure that funding of employees’ health insurance plans is not interrupted. He said the first step toward those goals is communication from the administration about which federally funded employees may be next.

“We have no idea what’s coming next,” said Quint. “The panic is already there. State employees are nervous, they’re worried. It’s much more worrisome to state employees to have zero information coming to them. … We don’t know if he’s actually protecting state jobs because he’s not giving anyone any information.”

Paul Mills, a Farmington lawyer known for his historical knowledge and analysis of state government, said Thursday that though a civil emergency historically has been used in Maine in times of war, natural disasters and severe economic challenges, he views LePage’s action positively.

“To do it in the capacity of a budgetary crisis, probably under the present circumstance, it seems relatively appropriate,” said Mills. “Historically, a lot of the reason for declaring civil emergencies was to help get the president to declare a similar emergency so you can get federal government funding. … This situation strikes me as you’re confronted with the essence of governmental authority, and who wants to be on the doorstep of anarchy? It’s hard to criticize leadership that seeks to fill that void in some fashion, no matter how it’s done.”

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, who is challenging LePage in the 2014 gubernatorial election, said in a written statement to the BDN on Thursday that the responsibility for ending the shutdown rests with Congress, but that LePage has a responsibility to work with the legislative branch to minimize the impact on Maine.

“The governor’s move is unusual. He is the only governor in the country that I’m aware of who has taken such an extraordinary action,” said Michaud. “My hope is that the governor is acting in coordination with the Legislature with the goal of putting the best interests of the state and its workforce first.”

LePage told legislative leaders and reporters on Thursday that the shutdown could affect all of the state’s 2,700 federally funded employees if it endures, but that he declared a civil emergency partially so affected employees can begin collecting unemployment benefits sooner and without the burden of having to seek another job.

“I don’t want them to go look for work,” he said. “We need them. They’re trained and they’re important to us.”

Brewer said much of the pushback against LePage could be the result of his history as the state’s chief executive — at least as it is seen through the lens of his political opponents.

“The governor is a controversial figure, so anytime he does anything, some supporters and opponents are going to wonder what ulterior motives he has,” said Brewer. “I think it would be almost irresponsible for the governor if he didn’t do this.”

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.