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Ahead of an imminent government shutdown, a nonprofit legal-aid group filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Maine Governor Paul LePage, seeking to force the state to continue operating welfare programs.

State government appears headed for an almost certain shutdown, beginning Friday at 11:59 p.m., because of a budget impasse between LePage and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. At the center of the dispute is whether to maintain a 3 percent tax surcharge on earnings above $200,000 that voters approved last year.

If state government shuts down, nearly 450,000 people who rely on public assistance programs — including MaineCare, food stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — would be affected, argued Maine Equal Justice Partners, the organization suing the state.

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The lawsuit says Maine is bound by federal law to distribute benefits in a timely fashion. It seeks a temporary restraining order to ensure that eligible citizens continue to receive government assistance.

“The failure to adhere to these unequivocal requirements places the Plaintiffs, who consist mostly of children, elderly, or disabled low-income individuals, at serious risk to their health and well-being,” the motion said.

The suit seeks class-action status on behalf of such plaintiffs.

The governor designated a number of employees as “emergency personnel” on Thursday, including the State Police, Capitol Police, first responders, and correctional, psychiatric, and state parks staff. They would be expected to work during a shutdown.

But LePage’s office did not address whether any efforts would be made to ensure that individuals applying for welfare benefits would get them. A number of agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, declined to comment on plans for a shutdown and directed all questions to LePage’s office.

Republican Senate leaders could not be reached for comment.

The silence sparked a wave of anxiety in Maine, particularly among those who rely on safety-net programs.

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“We’ve been left in the dark,” said Jack Comart, litigation director for Maine Equal Justice Partners.

Public employees were also largely clueless about how a shutdown would affect them. The governor said in a memo that he was “unable to answer at this time” whether employees would be paid for the July 4 holiday. While members of the state health plan would not be denied service, LePage said it was possible they’d be required to pay part or all of the insurance premiums due.

Some employees were told they would need to cancel previously approved vacations, said AFSCME union representative Jim Mackie. AFSCME’s Maine office represents about 2,600 workers, many of whom have been designated emergency staff.

“The way the governor has handled this has been absolutely despicable, all these employees — we can’t get a straight answer from anyone about what’s going on,” Mackie said.

The last time the state government shut down following a budget battle was in 1991, when John McKernan, also a Republican, was governor. Courthouses, state parks, and beaches closed for 16 days, and Mainers in the process of applying for MaineCare and food stamps were forced to wait.


Catie Edmondson
can be reached at catie.edmondson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @CatieEdmondson.