AUGUSTA, Maine — With a budget deal as elusive as ever, references to a potential government shutdown are increasingly heard in conversations around the State House.
Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond on Wednesday said that a shutdown was a real possibility after budget negotiations faltered, although talks between he and the three other caucus leaders have reportedly resumed behind closed doors.
The legislative leaders have all stressed their commitment to avoiding a shutdown. High-ranking officials, including Gov. Paul LePage and House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, eager to avoid panic as delicate negotiations continue, have attempted to downplay even the possibility of one happening.
Still, many in Augusta and beyond will continue to feel anxious as the days between now and July 1 continue to come and go without a new spending plan.
On that day, the state’s current $6.3 billion budget will expire. Without a replacement, the state would be unauthorized to spend any more money. In other words, state government would be forced to shut down. But what does that really mean?
There is no real set procedure for how a government shutdown works. No exact order of operations exists to handle the state not having a budget because, well, the Maine Constitution and state law imagines that the state will have a balanced budget plan at all times.
“We don’t really design government not to work,” Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said on Thursday.
Still, past experience offers some indication of how a shutdown will play out. Gov. John McKernan, a Republican, presided over a 16-day shutdown in 1991 after the state budget became a casualty of a bitter disagreement about workers compensation reform between him and the Legislature.
LePage will need to decide which government employees and services are “essential,” and which are not. Most expect a shutdown to work much in the same way as a natural or civil emergency, in which the governor has broad authority to make decisions about the operations of the executive branch.
Employees deemed to provide essential services can be required to continue working, without pay. LePage will have discretion to determine who is and isn’t “essential.”
In ‘91, McKernan ruled in an executive order that only employees whose jobs “minimize the risk of direct and imminent injuries” to people or property would be considered essential.
LePage’s administration on Thursday refused to offer any insight into how LePage would conduct government if a shutdown occurs.
“A shutdown is unnecessary,” LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said. “Some politicians employ discussions of a shutdown as a tactic to generate panic amongst public employees; in reality, however, a number of alternatives exist that can avoid such a scenario. Our public employees do good work and we expect their work will continue uninterrupted.”
Most state offices will close as nonessential government employees are sent home. In 1991, police officers, prison employees and workers at the state’s psychiatric wards continued working, without pay. Most other state workers were sent home with no paychecks for more than two weeks.
State parks and other public lands will likely close or remain unstaffed. In 1991, a tourist died from drowning at Popham Beach State Park, where a lifeguard was off-duty because of the shutdown, according to The New York Times..
Career Centers would either shut their doors or drastically limit their staff, as would many offices of the Department of Health and Human Services, where needy Mainers access caseworkers and help with getting their benefits. A decision would have to be made about the state’s courts, as well.
The state Department of Transportation and contracted road crews will likely drop their shovels and park their steamrollers, as they did 24 years ago, leaving the state’s scheduled highway and bridge maintenance projects on the shelf during the usually busy construction season.
And it’s not just construction contractors whose state funding would dry up; scheduled payments to municipalities, school districts and other public and private groups could be affected by a shutdown.
Then there’s the state workers.
Roughly 5,000 government employees will lose pay immediately. Another 6,000 would lose pay if the shutdown lasts a week. That’s according to MaryAnne Turowski, political director for Maine State Employee Association, SEIU Local 1989, the union that represents state workers.
Turowski said that because the timing of a potential shutdown is particularly troubling for roughly 5,000 state workers, who are scheduled to receive a biweekly paycheck on July 1. Even though the check is to pay for hours worked in June, while government would have still been open, the shutdown will mean those workers get no pay.
There are two different pay cycles for state workers, she said, so the longer a shutdown lasts, the bigger the effect on her members. If a budget impasse continues through July 8, another roughly 6,000 employees will not receive checks for work conducted before the shutdown, she said.
The pain of those lost paychecks would be exacerbated by the hours lost during the shutdown itself. Even those essential workers required to clock in without pay during the shutdown have no guarantee that they’ll receive back-pay when a budget is passed, although lawmakers could include retroactive wages in an eventual budget deal.
Turowski said that some government workers earn small enough salaries to qualify for MaineCare, and many live paycheck-to-paycheck. Losing pay and being sent home from work could cause missed or late mortgage payments and affect workers’ ability to feed their families, she said.
“Our members are very worried,” said Turowski, who was president of the union during the shutdown in ‘91. “We have to take it seriously because we’ve been here and done this. The consequences were dire. So we have to take it seriously and have to ask our members to contact their legislators and tell them how critical it is that they support a bipartisan budget.”
Budget talks will almost certainly become even more heated. If you think negotiations are difficult now, wait until thousands of state workers are sent home without pay and government offices close their doors on Maine residents.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.