POLL QUESTION

Maine House debates bill to dock lawmakers’ pay if state shutdown occurs, puts off vote

Diane Russell in 2009.
Jen Lynds | BDN
Diane Russell in 2009.
Posted March 04, 2014, at 2:17 p.m.
Last modified March 04, 2014, at 6:41 p.m.

Poll Question

AUGUSTA, Maine — If the state can’t manage to avoid a shutdown, then lawmakers shouldn’t get paid. That was the argument made Tuesday by Portland Democrat Diane Russell on the floor of the House of Representatives.

In the event of a state government shutdown, state employees throughout Maine’s 16 counties would go without pay until the government opens again. Rep. Russell said it’s only fair that if thousands of employees are suddenly left in the lurch, lawmakers should feel a pinch as well.

“It sends a message to the people of Maine that we’re committed to finding a solution, and if we get to a place where we cannot agree, when our workers don’t know if they’ll be paid, then we’ve put some skin in the game,” said Russell, who proposed LD 1541, An Act to Ensure that Legislators Share the Sacrifice with Civil Servants in the Event of a State Government Shutdown.

The Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee voted 11-1 late in February that the bill “ought not to pass.” That recommendation hit the floor of the House on Tuesday.

Lawmakers are paid about $23,500 per two-year legislative cycle. They also receive stipends for travel, lodging and food when the Legislature is in session.

Under Russell’s bill, if a budget cannot be agreed upon in the first year of a legislative cycle — which would trigger a government shutdown — lawmakers would lose $100 per day for each day the state went without a budget. The total cut would be taken from the lawmaker’s pay in the second year of the cycle.

Support and opposition for the bill crossed party lines. Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, said that while he supports the idea behind the bill, he could not support it because it did not penalize the governor, who must propose a biennial budget, the same way as the Legislature in the event of a shutdown.

“Writing successful budgets is not only dependent on the good work of the Legislature, but on the good work of the executive,” Jones said. “There is no accountability for the executive. … Passing this would probably play well at home, but practically speaking, it puts the Legislature at a disadvantage in any negotiations with the executive over the state budget.”

Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said the governor was irrelevant to Russell’s bill.

“This sends the right signal for our constituents, and as far as the executive’s veto, the Legislature holds the key to override that veto,” Keschl said. “So we have the final say” in the budget.

Democratic leaders in the House had not anticipated a debate on the bill because it received nearly unanimous opposition in committee, which normally results in the House easily accepting the committee’s recommendation. House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, tabled the bill to give his members a chance to discuss the bill in a caucus, according to his spokeswoman, Ann Kim.

“It became clear on the floor that members had some questions about the proposal, so it made sense to put it aside until they had a chance to discuss it,” Kim said in an email.

The bill could be taken up in the House again as soon as Wednesday.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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