It’s the day of reckoning in Augusta.
We’ve been giving you updates on the state budget process day after day and ticking off a number of deadlines by which lawmakers must act or cause a government shutdown. Today marks perhaps the hardest deadline yet.
The six-member conference committee formed by legislative leaders two weeks ago has to reach a deal and vote it out today — or perhaps early Thursday — in order to give legislative staff time to draft a revised budget bill that the House and Senate can vote by the end of the week and sent to Gov. Paul LePage. To take effect on Saturday, it must pass both chambers with two-thirds majorities.
The real deadline looms at midnight Saturday, when the current fiscal year ends and the next one begins with or without state government in operation. To avoid a shutdown, everything needs to fall into place perfectly and efficiently, though there is little indication that opposing factions in the Legislature are poised to reach the needed compromise.
Even if they do, we’re within the 10-days window that LePage is given in the Maine Constitution to act on it — which means there could be a shutdown whatever the Legislature does. The governor predicted a shutdown Tuesday in a radio interview.
This is very, very late in June for there to be no budget deal, though there have been a couple of 11th-hour saves in the past. According to information provided by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, budget negotiations have dragged into late June several times since 1967, when state government shut down for one day until the budget was in place on July 1.
In 1991, the fight was over reforms to the state workers compensation insurance system. State government was out for 16 days until a deal was struck on July 17. Democrats tried to force through a one-year budget but then-Gov. John McKernan, a Republican, vetoed it on July 1.
The next two budgets after that were also doozies. They were enacted on June 30 and June 29 in 1993 and 1995, respectively. Since then, the latest negotiations have gone was June 17 two years ago. LePage vetoed that budget but the Legislature had time to return to Augusta and override the veto.
As has been reported by the Bangor Daily News and others, a state shutdown wreaks havoc across Maine in many ways. In 1991, there were at times thousands of protesters in and around the State House as lawmakers negotiated. There was a camp or protesters across the street in Capitol Park and the rhetoric was furious, including chants of “we want [McKernan’s] head.”
“At first it may have been a little bit of adrenaline rush, or kind of fun thing to do, but that didn’t last very long. They got very serious and very angry,” John Hale, a former BDN State House reporter who covered the 1991 shutdown, told Kassadi Moore, a BDN intern, by phone Monday. “By the end of it, they were kind of a menace to the safety of the Legislature, and they were yelling, and some of them had air horns … They were blowing them just as the legislators went by, and at least one legislator claimed he lost part of his hearing because of that. Others ones would spit on the legislators. It was not a pretty scene at all.”
This year’s State House protests have been modest until Tuesday, when the hallway between the House and Senate was clogged with sign-waving Mainers. Despite being told by building security officers not to chant, they often did. If there’s anything good about it, it’s that so far they are not demanding anyone’s head.
“Respect our votes” is the mantra, though many of the protesters said they were urged to attend Tuesday’s rally by the Maine People’s Alliance, which is one of the groups that championed the 3 percent surcharge for education that is at the center of this year’s disagreement.
All the ingredients are present for a repeat of 1991. Canopies have already been set up at Capitol Park. There is no obvious path toward success for negotiations. Democrats, Republicans and the governor have all drawn hard lines in the granite. July 2017 is looking like another doozy.
This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a free political newsletter distributed Monday through Friday by the Bangor Daily News to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more of today’s Daily Brief, click here. To have the Daily Brief delivered daily to your inbox, click here.