Emergency bill would shut off legislators’ pay during government shutdown

Posted March 04, 2013, at 6 p.m.
Last modified March 04, 2013, at 8:06 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Fueled by watching her late-night idea to start an online petition go viral, Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, has proposed that Maine lawmakers’ pay be cut if the battle over Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal results in a state government shutdown.

Last Thursday morning, Russell launched an online petition on the website SignOn.org, which is an extension of the national progressive organization known as MoveOn.org. Russell’s petition calls for any across-the-board pay cuts for federal employees to include the same pay cuts for members of Congress and the president of the United States.

Within a few hours, the petition garnered 8,000 signatures. On Thursday night, that number jumped to 175,000. As of Monday afternoon, Russell’s petition had more than 307,000 signatures.

“On Thursday, the number was jumping by tens of thousands of people every time I hit refresh,” Russell said. “I have an inbox full of messages from people who don’t know me. My Twitter account has just been on fire.”

All of that got Russell thinking about the situation here in Maine. The state faces its own budget battle as the Legislature begins consideration of a biennial budget proposal by Gov. Paul LePage that has already been panned widely by Democrats because, among other things, it suspends municipal revenue sharing with local towns and cities for the next two years and cuts a range of programs and services.

Even before the budget debate has begun, the rhetoric has grown serious. House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said earlier this week that legislators, and LePage in particular, were slipping into the practice of “Washington-style politics” by trying to tie together the renegotiation of the state liquor contract with paying back years of Medicaid debt to the state’s hospitals.

Then two weeks ago, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, raised the possibility during a television interview that the budget debate could be so contentious that it could lead to a government shutdown at the start of the new fiscal year in July.

Though Maine lawmakers earn a fraction of what their congressional counterparts do, Russell said they should “share in the pain” if they allow a government shutdown. So on Monday she proposed an emergency, after-the-deadline bill called An Act to Ensure That the Governor and Legislators Share the Sacrifice with Civil Servants in the Event of a Government Shutdown.

Though her bill is in the concept form and hasn’t yet been filed with details, Russell said that it would eliminate a paycheck for lawmakers for every paycheck missed by public employees because of a state shutdown.

“If you’re going to believe in something you should put your money where your mouth is,” Russell said. “There need to be consequences for politicians who don’t do their jobs, myself included.”

Fredette said Monday that he supports Russell’s idea, though he hopes the budget talks can be successful without any government shutdown.

“One of the things I’m proud of is the fact that I’m one of the people who sat on the appropriations committee last session, where we unanimously passed a biennial budget and four supplemental budgets,” Fredette said. “We did it in a bipartisan, unanimous fashion then, and I think we have a good chance now of making the same result.”

Fredette said he was disappointed that Democrats are using his comments about a shutdown “out of context.”

“That talk about possibility was simply to be upfront about the possible outcomes,” Fredette said. “Since then, the Democrats have used the word [shutdown] so often it’s become part of the lexicon.”

Because Russell submitted her bill after the cloture date, it will have to gain approval from legislative leaders who sit on the Legislative Council to be put into the process. Fredette said he will vote in favor of the bill.

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