Maine recalls government shutdown 20 years ago

Posted June 26, 2011, at 11:35 a.m.
Last modified June 26, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The State House hallways were jammed with irate, screaming protesters, and scores of state workers pitched a tent “union city” in a park across the street.

The already cool relations between the political parties had sunk to a deep freeze as summer approached and finally reached a breaking point where negotiations on a state budget collapsed.
The start of July will mark the 20th anniversary of what many remember as the worst crisis in state government in modern times: the shutdown.

“It’s in Technicolor in my mind,” said Nancy Randall Clark of Freeport, who was the Democratic Senate majority leader at the time.

The episode has left an indelible imprint on the way business is done in the Legislature now, and taught a hard lesson about governing: When it comes to the really tough issues, disagree agreeably. Voters are watching.

Specters of the shutdown appeared in early 2011 as newly elected Gov. Paul LePage presented a two-year budget. As in 1991, it sought to close a yawning gap between revenues and expenses and asked for a lot of sacrifice from state workers. Feelings were so strong that, for the first time since the 1991 shutdown, some openly feared the same would happen again.

But a compromise budget passed this month with bipartisan support, well ahead of the new fiscal year.

“I think what we just saw with the budget is what we should have seen 20 years ago,” Clark said.

Charles Webster, then leader of the 13-member Republican Senate minority who was instrumental in bringing about the shutdown, said it “absolutely was the right thing to do.”

“I think there are thousands of people who wouldn’t have a job today if we hadn’t stood up then” for workers’ compensation changes that had long been sought by businesses, said Webster, now chairman of the Maine Republican Party.

The 1991 session opened with revenues in a tailspin and showing no immediate sign of recovery. Adding to the bleak atmosphere was the workers’ compensation issue that had been festering for years, with Republicans pressuring for reforms that would drive down rates paid by businesses and Democrats insisting on preserving worker benefits.

Stirring the mix was the political makeup in the Capitol, with a Democratic-controlled Legislature and moderate Republican Gov. John McKernan. Their relations were poisoned, Webster recalled, as Democrats repeatedly sent the governor partisan bills they knew he would veto.

Even by June 25, 1991, just days before a new budget was due to take effect, the two sides were “poles apart,” McKernan’s finance commissioner, Sawin Millett, said at the time. Millett is now LePage’s finance chief.

The big wedge between the two sides was McKernan’s insistence that a new budget be tied to workers’ compensation reforms, something the Democrats abhorred.

With prospects of a budget looking worse than bleak, McKernan issued emergency orders in late June saying vital services such as corrections staffing and state police could continue if his $3.2 billion budget proposal was not enacted. The budget relied on $300 million in new broad-based tax increases, something McKernan labeled “an anathema” to his side.

His critics fired back that McKernan was “grandstanding” with his emergency order. But as the drama played out, his directive was well-advised. Votes to pass a budget came up short of the two-thirds majorities needed. Lawmakers forwarded a stopgap, one-year budget of $1.6 billion, but McKernan vetoed what he called a “sham” spending document. State government was forced to shut down.

State employees, angry to be put out of work, flooded into the State House as citizens seeking state services found shuttered motor vehicle offices, closed veterans’ cemeteries and locked state liquor stores. Protesters formed gauntlets in the State House hallways, stomped on steps near the governor’s office and yelled on bullhorns.

“It was really, really loud,” Clark said. Walking through the gauntlet, “I wasn’t fearful, but I felt intimidated.”

Webster said one Republican senator suffered permanent ear damage as protesters, many from out of state, held their noisy protest.

“It was very confrontational,” said Webster, who recalled meeting daily with GOP senators to reassure them that they were doing the right thing.

Outside, about 100 state workers created a campsite in Capitol Park in a union solidarity gesture, with more than 40 tents.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, and then House speaker, remained adamant, saying, “I will not be blackmailed, threatened or told what has to be done on workers’ compensation in order to provide a budget.”

A temporary spending plan resumed regular services for three days, but most of state government remained closed. Finally, after 16 days of pressure-cooker negotiations, lawmakers adopted a budget by votes of 110-24 in the House and 30-1 in the Senate. McKernan quickly signed it, ending the long standoff.

Much of the workers’ compensation issue was dealt with in the budget, and the rest was punted to a specially appointed “blue ribbon commission,” whose reforms were later adopted by lawmakers and set the stage for a much-improved system today.

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