March 19, 2019
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How Maine reached the brink of a government shutdown

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The State House shines through the the fog in Augusta.

AUGUSTA, Maine — If Maine does not enact a two-year state budget within the next week, state government will have no money to operate, triggering a shutdown that could leave thousands of workers without pay and abruptly curtail all state services but the ones Gov. Paul LePage deems essential.

A high-stakes political conflict involving legislative leaders, LePage and, to a lesser extent, backbench lawmakers whose votes will be needed to enact the budget as an emergency measure is entering its endgame. Here’s a rundown of where things stand.

Friction points

It has been a week and a half since the Legislature created a six-person conference committee to close the state budget impasse but progress has been minimal. House Republicans on Thursday presented a counter-offer that nudged their position closer to that of Democrats and Senate Republicans, but major differences remain, most notably on education. While negotiators agree on increasing state aid to public schools, they disagree on how much more than the current allocation should be included in the budget and how to account for that revenue, which in current law will come from a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 a year.

Democrats and Republicans also disagree on some policy changes, such as a LePage initiative to create a statewide teacher contract and a proposal to spend an additional $10 million to incentivize school consolidation projects.

Other sticking points include disagreements on changes to social service programs, sweeping $10 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine into the General Fund and giving LePage a $1 million legal fund.

Avoiding a shutdown

While budget negotiations continue, largely in the background, the Legislature is pushing to finish its other works and is on track to do that on Tuesday. The budget conference committee was not expected to meet until Monday or Tuesday, although legislative leaders were expected to work on a compromise during the weekend.

The full Legislature, which voted Wednesday to extend the current session by five days, is not scheduled to return to Augusta until Tuesday. At that point, there will be only three days of session left unless they vote to extend it further.

Thursday’s conference committee meeting, the first in a week, saw House Republicans present an offer but little in the way of debate. Arguably more progress has been made on Twitter, where LePage said Thursday he will sign the House Republicans’ budget if the Legislature passes it and Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon countering that there is still a lot of work to do.

When the Legislature enacts the budget, it will have to be with a two-thirds majority to go into effect immediately, which makes a LePage veto irrelevant except in one regard: The Maine Constitution gives him up to 10 days to sign or veto bills and the deadline to preserve that time period for the governor went by last week.

Other fiduciary matters at play

On Friday, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee met to consider carrying some bills with fiscal impacts to next year and to consider funding some bills from the Special Appropriations Table, where more than 100 bills, most of which will die because of a lack of funding, are mired. A number of bond requests also await action. There is no plan in place to hold work sessions and make recommendations on those before the end of the month.

State workers are growing jittery

The impact of a government shutdown will have ripple effects across Maine, but state workers will bear the most immediate effect: Their paychecks will stop, perhaps even for some of the time they worked in the end of June.

At a Friday news conference hosted by the state workers union, Jane Gilbert of Augusta, who served as labor relations manager for the Maine Department of Transportation during the most recent government shutdown in 1991, said the shutdown stopped highway and bridge projects across Maine.

“Contractors weren’t allowed to work. The DOT had no one to monitor them,” said Gilbert. “So private contractors laid off their workers — in the middle of the summer construction season. It was a big mess.”

Jonathan French, a civil engineer for the DOT, said he worries about how long a shutdown will last and how that will affect his ability to support his family.

“I want to keep working and my family wants me to keep working,” he said. “Like everyone else, we have bills to pay like our mortgage and my student loan payment.”

Wider impacts

A range of Mainers would lose services in some form under a shutdown but until LePage determines who will be forced to work — without pay — and who will be sent home, those questions remain unanswered. LePage said earlier this week that he has directed state department heads to develop recommendations but his office hasn’t shared those recommendations and did not respond to questions on Friday from the Bangor Daily News.

The Maine State Employees Association provided a county-by-county breakdown of what they say will be a statewide impact of nearly $1.5 million a day in lost wages for state employees.

The hardest-hit county, by far, would be Kennebec, where state employees earn about $540,000 a day in total. Steve Butterfield, director of information services for the union, said the multiplier effect — which takes into account those dollars being passed from person to person, business to business — could be closer to $2.5 million a day.

In addition to any economic fallout, voters are likely to punish the elected officials they hold responsible for failing to pass a budget that has been on the table since January. Individual players in the drama — LePage, Senate President Mike Thibodeau and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, all Republicans — cannot seek re-election because of term limits, but candidates from their party could suffer if they are deemed culpable for a shutdown. House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, both Democrats, can seek re-election in 2018 and would likely face tough questions about their roles in a shutdown.

On a broader political level, both parties could incur the wrath of voters. After the 1991 shutdown that pitted a Republican governor against a Democrat-controlled Legislature, Mainers elected independent Angus King as their next governor three years later, demonstrating that anger over partisan gridlock that spills out of the State House has a long shelf life.

 



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