Maine State House rallies to preview budget battle in Augusta

Posted Feb. 25, 2011, at 8:48 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Sometime around noon on Saturday, two groups will gather outside of the State House for what is likely a prelude to Maine’s version of the budget battles being waged in state capitals across the U.S.

On one side will be pro-union Mainers voicing their support for protesters in Wisconsin and their opposition to perceived “attempts at union-busting” in the Pine Tree State.

Not to be outdone, tea party activists are planning a counter-rally to send a message that “we as a nation and state will have to make some sacrifices in order to bring our house out from this financial doom.”

The real political show will begin midweek, however, when large crowds of public employees, teachers and retirees are expected to jam the State House to protest Gov. Paul LePage’s planned changes to the state pension system.

On Monday, the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will kick off a monthlong series of public hearings on LePage’s $6.1 billion, 2-year budget.

With budget-related protests and political showdowns spreading beyond Wisconsin to places such as Indiana and Ohio, a question arises: Could Maine be next?

Not likely, according to people on all sides of the issues.

“Maine is not Wisconsin,” said House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, who pointed out that ending collective bargaining rights is not currently on the table in Maine. “I hope people will come and talk about what is happening here in Maine.”

But Wisconsin’s massive protests and weeks of political drama — including Democratic senators gone AWOL — could, according to some, affect the tone and tenor of the budget debate in Maine.

“We have gotten a lot of e-mails and calls from our members asking, ‘What can we do in Maine to both show solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin, but also to express concerns about budget cuts being laid out here?’” said Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Union. “As a result of that, we have had a lot of discussion about what do we want to do?”

There are certainly parallels between the situations in Maine and Wisconsin.

In both states, Republicans wrested control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature from Democrats last November — the only two states that experienced such a political changeover.

Now, Republican leaders here and in Wisconsin are proposing budgetary changes that, among other things, would require state employees to pay more toward their pensions and health insurance. LePage insists the changes will help address Maine’s $4.3 billion unfunded pension liability while producing more revenue for the General Fund.

GOP leaders in both states are also pursuing “right-to-work” bills, which make it so workers at unionized businesses who opt out of a union do not have to pay dues.

A key difference between the two states, however, is that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and GOP legislative leaders want to strip unions of their collective bargaining rights, which has become the biggest flash point between Republicans, Democrats and the unions. LePage is not pushing to end collective bargaining in Maine.

House Speaker Bob Nutting, R-Oakland, called LePage’s proposals “fair and modest” as Maine works to ensure the long-term solvency of the state’s pension and health insurance system.

It is too early to tell how those proposals will look in a few weeks after the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee deals with them, Nutting said. But in the meantime, he expects sizable but peaceful crowds of union members and retirees to converge on the State House next week for the public hearings.

“I expect it to be civil and well-organized,” Nutting said. “Maine people have historically been civil with each other.”

In anticipation of the large crowds, Appropriations Committee members decided Thursday to set a 3-minute limit on testimony and to minimize the number of questions from lawmakers.

Committee co-chairman Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said there are always elements to any cost-cutting budget that are controversial. So while he expects a robust crowd, Rosen is not anticipating the tone or energy level to be very different from recent budget hearings.

What Rosen said he doesn’t want to see is the debate over Maine’s pension and health benefits “hijacked” by national interest groups, given the rancorous and partisan political atmosphere in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

“We have a Maine-based proposal and we want to hear from Maine people,” Rosen said.

Likewise, Cain said she hopes the Maine Legislature will keep the bipartisan spirit that has led to the passage of several recession-wracked budgets with strong support from both parties.

Yet Cain said she also hopes people affected by the governor’s proposals will come to Augusta to help put a face on the cuts.

“We are going to be prepared to offer alternatives” when the public hearings are over, Cain said. “But I think any solution is going to come not only from bipartisan work [in committee] but also by bringing the stakeholders to the table.”

Saturday’s pro-union rally is being organized by the progressive group Move On. An organizer for the event said Friday afternoon that more than 300 people already had responded that they intend to attend.

Quint, the executive director of the state employees union, said his organization was not involved in planning Saturday’s “solidarity” rally. He was also mum on specific plans for next week.

“The budget, as currently proposed, really looks to balance it on the backs of state workers and teachers and retirees,” Quint said. “We are definitely going to have some people there to talk about the impacts on them.”

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