Governing Style and the Emergency

As the hours ticked by and the federal government teetered into partial shutdown, we all looked up to the sky (or in the newspapers) and wondered what would happen next. And for most of us, immediately…nothing. The impact of the federal shutdown was immediate on a small subset of American workers and their families. For the rest of us, it was ripples of various sizes, at various distances from us. Slipping into the shutdown was like pulling our canoes down into the water ahead of unknown rapids. The potential for serious damage looms, but there’s so much uncertainty that it’s hard to know exactly where it will come from, or when.

States experienced both the immediate impact and the prolonged uncertainty. The impact on states has and will continue to vary. States which depend on fall tourism to federal parks or monuments have felt a massive impact, as has occurred most strongly in Maine with Acadia. Federal funding of important food-security programs like WIC has stopped, leading to a horrified- but variable-wait in individual states for state funding to run dry. Activists and private philanthropy are stepping in as an imperfect stopgap measure. (For example, Twitter user @FeministHulk has provided one resource for tracking state-by-state WIC resources.)

The federal failure to fund many other similarly important federally-funded programs and positions has affected every state in the country. However, it’s affected them in different ways depending on the programs, size, and individual socio-economic qualities present in each state.

Just as the impact on states has varied, state responses have varied quite a bit too. Virginia, which is the state most affected by the federal shutdown, has responded by easing the process for state and federal employees who have been furloughed to register for unemployment. Alaska similarly has a large number of federal workers per capita. There, the governor has used his bully pulpit to argue with the US Department of the Interior for the opening of Alaskan federal lands. (The National Weather Service staff stationed in Alaska have been doing their part as well.) In Alabama, also among the states most affected, district court employees have been asked by the court’s administrative judge to work without pay. Connecticut’s governor determined that the federally-funded Head Start program was so critical to his state that he used his budgeting powers to find additional state funding for it to continue operating. Similarly, Utah’s governor found emergency funds within the budget to pay to reopen Utah’s national parks, in order to avoid the continuing devastating impact on Utah tourism. In North Carolina, individual agencies have been managing their substantial furloughs: their state’s DHHS told 337 employees not to come in to work this week.

In all of these cases, we see that states have been able to respond to the shutdown by exercising their normal powers of governance. In particular, if you look through the stories about how states have dealt with the shutdown, you see many people throughout state agencies behaving competently, making hard decisions as problems come at their individual departments.

In our state, the governor chose–as he so often does–to forge his own path. Rather than depending on his agency heads to make good decisions about how to respond to the specific problems they encountered, the governor decided that he needed more power to direct the state unilaterally. Not only was this a unique gubernatorial response to this federal shutdown, but as far as I could find is also unique over the collected state responses to both the 2013 and the 1995-1996 shutdown taken together. (In the previous shutdown, states even became adept at finding ways to blunt the effects on their state by paying attention to political headwinds and planning ahead for it.)

Even Florida’s executive branch chose a less confrontational path, sending only a letter to agency heads to instruct them not to substitute state money for missing federal funds. The governor of Wyoming acted similarly, moving so quickly that he needed the power of Google to keep up with his speed in letting affected employees know how to access unemployment and benefits. (You know you’re a small state when your lone webmaster apparently doesn’t have time to toss up a brief page on the state website for you.)

The idea that declaring a civil emergency and permitting the governor to suspend laws and rules was the most responsible or an inevitable way to deal with the federal shutdown begs credulity. It suggests either that Maine has a truly unusual set of laws which uniquely binds our governor’s hands or that Maine is more strongly affected than all other states. In its announcement, meanwhile, there was no evidence presented that the agency heads who were closest to the issues faced specific insurmountable constraints.

However, this decision to micromanage agency response to the shutdown by arrogating all decision-making power to himself has a strong echo across other demonstrations of the governor’s governing style. In the past, the governor has prevented department commissioners from testifying before committees. Upon entering office he issued a formal “gag order,” telling all department heads to run their comments to the legislature or media by his office first. And who could forget the feat of micromanagement achieved in the waning days of the last legislative session, where the governor managed to crush all previous total Maine gubernatorial veto records–as well as setting an impressive precedent–with 21 prospective laws vetoed in a single day?

The LePage Emergency is somewhat baffling when viewed alone, and very suspicious if you’ve been the subject of many of the governor’s frequent attacks, but somewhat more predictable if we observe his pattern. The governor seems generally to prefer that he alone (or perhaps with his robot legislature) makes all of the state’s decisions. This is not the only way to respond to the shutdown – and I believe that it will also not prove to be the best way – but in context it is not entirely surprising.

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