Tensions are mounting in Augusta over the impasse on the state budget. What started as whispers in the hallways about a possible state government shutdown are now an open question posed to every member, staffer, activist and lobbyist.
For the few of us serving in the Legislature who actually lived through Maine’s first shutdown, in 1991, the rumor mill is particularly painful. We all remember that time differently, but the one thing we share is a determination to do everything we can to make sure a shutdown never happens again.
Twenty-six years ago, what started out as a disagreement between Democrats and Republicans, an Augusta problem, quickly affected the entire state and hurt hardworking people who had trusted us to represent them.
The shutdown was first felt by out-of-staters. Tourists looking to spend their disposable income at Maine state parks were turned away during the peak of the summer season. And if they could get in, the grounds were a mess. Liquor stores, then controlled by the state, closed their doors, hemorrhaging $3 million in revenue.
But soon, a problem that only seemed to really bother those “from away” started to creep into other parts of our daily lives.
State workers suddenly deemed “nonessential” by somebody they didn’t know were sent home indefinitely without pay. (This simple act of classifying workers as essential and nonessential wreaked havoc on employee morale for weeks, months and even years after.) Those who could get by without a paycheck did, but others struggled to pay their mortgages and put food on the table. In Augusta, local businesses that counted these employees as regular customers soon noticed a marked drop in business.
After the first week, the State House turned into a pressure cooker. Mainers flooded the halls, demanding action for their families and their children. We were fighting for something we deeply believed in (and do to this day), but the intensity and the anger directed in every direction caused us all to rethink what we were in the midst of doing.
As lawmakers, we fought to get through the hallways, confronting the rightfully angry families and workers with no answers. As state workers, we begged for solutions, tired of being punished because legislators could not agree to govern. At the Maine Department of Transportation, we were forced to stop construction projects, during the scant few months when we can make repairs to our roads and bridges.
It was like that for more than two weeks, arguably some of the longest weeks of our lives. We did not win the shutdown. Yes, eventually the two sides agreed to compromise and a budget was passed, but we did not win. No one wins in a shutdown. For lawmakers, Mainers rebelled against the status quo, establishing term limits that have consequences even today. Some state workers have yet to be paid their back salary from that time. And Mainers remain skeptical that their government works for them.
This year, the Appropriations Committee has worked hard to find a compromise every lawmaker can support. But that’s the thing about compromise; it is hard. Leaders have rarely left the negotiation table in the past few weeks, trying to identify a way to come together.
And the fact is, we are close. Senate Democrats, House Democrats and Senate Republicans are within striking distance of agreeing on a final budget that includes more state funding for education, which voters demanded in November. House Republicans are further away, but we need them to join us or we will be unable to pass a budget and get our job done.
But we are also close to making the same mistake that happened 26 years ago and letting the far-reaching effects of a shutdown damage our government and economy. That’s why we’re urging Mainers to call their representatives. Be clear that you want a fair budget that keeps government running. Tell them a shutdown is not an option. We hope that when we look back on these last remaining months, there are still only a few Mainers who truly understand what a state shutdown means.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, is a member of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. Reps. Donna Doore, an Augusta Democrat and former state worker; Jim Handy, a Lewiston Democrat; Ralph Tucker, a Brunswick Democrat and a former chair of the Maine Workers’ Compensation Commission; and Pinny Beebe-Center, a Rockland Democrat and a former worker for the Maine Department of Transportation, also contributed to this OpEd.