AUGUSTA, Maine — With every passing day, the prospect of a state government shutdown on July 1 becomes more probable.
On Monday morning, a group of state employees, organized by their labor union, took to the State House to urge lawmakers to abandon the entrenched positions that have developed during the past three weeks and break the impasse. The number of people at the rally — a couple of dozen at most — was underwhelming, but Ramona Welton, a rally organizer and president of the largest state workers union, said that will change over the next 11 days if there is no movement.
“This is very real,” she said while the Senate plowed through bills down the hall. “Every hour that ticks away, the window to avoid a shutdown closes. I don’t think the citizens of the state of Maine are fully understanding of the ramifications of a shutdown.”
Talk of government shutdown remains hypothetical as long as we’re still in the month of June — the state’s new fiscal year begins July 1 — but progress has been scant for more than two weeks.
Gov. Paul LePage and his Republican allies in the House of Representatives are bucking calls from Democrats and Senate Republicans for significant new education spending, especially if its source is the 3 percent surtax on income above $200,000 per year, which Maine voters approved by referendum last year.
The stalemate, which many lawmakers say is as serious as the partisan split over workers compensation that led to a 16-day shutdown in 1991, isn’t due to a specific government crisis or falling revenues. Instead, the fight is over how much to increase spending.
LePage’s budget proposal, introduced in early January, called for roughly $6.8 billion in spending during the biennium. House Republicans argue that, even if state revenues increase, the budget should not exceed $7 billion. For context, LePage’s first two-year budget in 2011 pegged spending at $6.1 billion.
What can Mainers expect if an impasse continues? A lot of it revolves around LePage, whose office failed to respond to questions posed by the Bangor Daily News.
LePage has suggested a plan to avoid a shutdown, but it’s never been done in Maine. LePage has said on multiple occasions that the state could enact a congressional-style continuing budget resolution, which would pay for government operations after July 1 at the same spending level as now. LePage proposed a 60-day continuing resolution in 2013, but it failed to gain any traction — possibly because lawmakers were able to compromise on a tax reform package.
Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat who also was attorney general in 2013, wrote then in a letter to legislative leaders that a continuing resolution violates Maine law, which requires the Legislature to enact a balanced budget in odd-numbered years.
“Even if it did not do so, any short-term emergency budget, passed with a two-thirds votes, would throw the state into financial uncertainty and would face significant opposition from bondholders, schools, hospitals and thousands of entities to whom the state has continuing and long-term obligations,” Mills wrote.
Another option would be for LePage or legislators to craft and pass a budget bill that has a sunset clause for later this year. That would buy some time to let partisan rancor cool, but it’s hard to imagine a permanent solution being more possible in two or three months. It also almost certainly would require a special legislative session later this year, which would trigger costs not included in the budget.
Grant Pennoyer, executive director of the Legislative Council, estimated in the past that a special session costs nearly $43,000 for the first day and $38,000 for subsequent days.
LePage can use his power to define what “government shutdown” means to his advantage. If a shutdown happens, it’s the governor’s job to determine which state employees qualify as essential personnel. Anyone deemed essential would be required to work, probably without pay, though backfilling that pay ultimately would be a decision of the Legislature.
It’s all but certain that state troopers, prison guards and psychiatric unit nurses would remain on the job, but thousands of state employees would be told to stay home without pay.
“In 1991, no notice was given,” Welton, who works in the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said. “You got up one morning, and it was shut down. It’s not a planned layoff. It’s an emergency layoff.”
Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, was attorney general during the 1991 shutdown. That he was a Democrat and then-Gov. John McKernan was a Republican didn’t turn out to be a problem, but Carpenter said the situation today is much different.
“To his undying credit, Gov. McKernan checked with us on a regular basis,” Carpenter said. “I think what will be different now will be that Gov. LePage will not agree to allow anybody or any agency to check him. He will make the decisions and, candidly, I don’t think any court is going to step in and say no to him because it’s a political question.”
In 1991, state parks and other public lands closed, disrupting the tourist trade through the Fourth of July holiday and beyond. A wide range of state offices also closed. Department of Transportation crews stopped construction projects and payments to entities such as schools, and municipalities were delayed.
The pressure will mount as shutdown day draws near. Without a budget in place, by June 30 the State House would be packed with protesters, and lawmakers would be heavily lobbied there and at their homes. With driver’s licenses to be renewed and other business to conduct with state government, growing numbers of Mainers would tune in and presumably demand a solution.
Again, LePage holds increased leverage in that scenario, as lawmakers have gone past the deadline to present him with a budget requiring his action before July 1. He has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign or veto a budget. With no budget on his desk, that interval extends past July 1.
Most of the pressure will be on the House of Representatives, and not necessarily just on Republicans. Democrats in both chambers and Senate Republicans are more aligned with each other than House Republicans are with the others, but that’s only in terms of the budget proposals on the table.
When it comes time to vote, the fate of the budget — and whether state government will have any money on July 1 — will depend on legislative leaders’ efforts to muster two-thirds support in each chamber. That could lead to unorthodox alliances, with legislators whose political aspirations could be damaged by the stigma of a shutdown becoming increasingly open to compromise.
If the budget proposal that goes to a vote contains $110 million or more in new education funding over the current biennium, which is the floor for how much Senate Republicans have committed to, the question will be how many Republicans vote with the Democrats.
If it’s a lower number, Democrats are likely to back away from a deal, but the debate won’t be just about the number. A bloc of 52 House Democrats previously said they won’t vote for a budget that doesn’t include a “progressive and sustainable funding source” to continue that level of state aid to schools in future years.
Those 52 Democrats, along with two independents who also signed the pledge, have as much power to block budget enactment as do House Republicans. They also are the target of the protesters who rallied Monday at the State House, hoping to pressure them to stand by their pledge to significantly higher state aid to public schools.
Talk of state shutdown is common at this time of year as negotiators routinely use that specter as a leveraging tool. However, this year is different. The deadline to deliver a budget to LePage in time to override a veto — which the previous two legislatures did — has passed.
With the termed-out governor more focused on his legacy than keeping government open and the political damage the 1991 shutdown left in its wake a distant memory, the current impasse could stretch well into July and necessitate court intervention if the continuing resolution becomes a legal sticking point. One thing is certain, as the common phrase at the State House goes: “It will include something for everyone to hate.”