AUGUSTA, Maine — When it comes to state budget-making, the contrast couldn’t be more extreme between 1991 and 2009.
Working under a dark economic cloud 18 years ago, Republicans and Democrats were at each other’s throats, the partisan rancor so dense it caused a breakdown and ultimately a state government shutdown. Angry residents and state workers formed a gauntlet in the State House halls to jeer at legislators for failing to act, and extra security was brought in to keep order.
This year, the backdrop to the budget-making task was similar, with a monster recession gobbling up state revenues and the governor forced to put forward a two-year budget smaller than the previous one.
But the atmosphere was different this time. Peace and civility reigned, lawmakers talked bipartisanship — and then followed their own advice throughout the process.
In the end, as they adopted a bare-bones $5.8 billion budget well before the June 30 deadline, Democrats took turns praising Republicans and Republicans heartily hailed Democrats.
What’s happened in the last two decades to change the atmosphere?
For one thing, both sides hated the budget package with equal intensity this time around, though their reasons may have differed.
Lawmakers this year also had something their predecessors lacked: $600 million of dollars in economic stimulus money from the federal government that helped fill a $1.4 billion hole. Still, the budget included cuts in an array of programs, including children’s services, education and the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare.
“If we had not had the stimulus money, the cuts would have been more severe, and the impact would have been much greater,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who was House speaker during the 1991 debacle.
Republican Sen. Peter Mills of Cornville, who was not in the Legislature in 1991 but was a close observer, said more was at play this time than the stimulus. There’s stronger anti-tax sentiment now than there was in 1991, so the Appropriations Committee members of both parties knew the option of raising taxes to balance the budget was a nonstarter, Mills said.
Legislators and lobbyists who remember the 1991 collapse also say it was not the budget itself that caused the mayhem. It was a side issue — workers’ compensation reform — which then-Gov. John McKernan, a Republican, linked to the state-spending plan and ultimately caused the budget to unravel.
As Martin recalled, the Appropriations Committee had resolved the tough budget issues, which resulted in $300 million in tax increases, furlough days for state workers and cuts in many state services.
“There was no problem in passing the budget,” said Edward Gorham, then the Maine AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer and now its president. In his view, it was the insurance industry’s push to “gut” Maine’s workers’ compensation law that led to the breakdown, “the same people that brought us this recession.”
Republicans saw the need to reform Maine’s comp system as being so critical to the state’s economy that it had to become part of the budget.
The current House chairwoman of Appropriations, Rep. Emily Cain, who was 11 years old at the time of the last budget crisis, said the matter was handled better this time around because lawmakers have learned from the 1991 experience. That goes especially for current members of the committee, such as Martin and Rep. Sawin Millett of Waterford, the GOP lead on the committee who was state finance commissioner in 1991.
“What happened in ’91 made sure that failure was not an option this time around,” said Cain, D-Orono.
Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, a five-term senator at the time of the shutdown, said lawmakers this year responded to economic conditions that are much worse than they were in 1991.
“I think that the times are much worse than they were in 1991 economically. … This has really been across the board and it’s been global, everybody’s affected by it, everybody’s hurt, and I think people really do have a sense that this is the worst that we’ve all seen for a long time,” Baldacci said. “So there’s a sense that, OK, let’s put aside the petty partisanship and the differences aside and let’s see if we can’t work together at this.”
“Maybe we’re starting something here in Maine, where the civility and tone and bipartisanship is something that we can spread across the country,” Baldacci said.