With no agreement in sight on a two-year budget in the Maine Legislature, the state is as close to a government shutdown as it has been since 1991.
Gov. Paul LePage has wide authority to determine which state employees work during a shutdown. While he hasn’t released a plan, he sent a memo to state employees on Wednesday that mostly sticks to the shutdown strategy of John McKernan, the former Republican governor who presided over the last shutdown.
We can glean a lot from the last shutdown on who may work. Courts will likely be scaled back and Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices closed. A lasting shutdown promises to frustrate Mainers around — and particularly after — the Fourth of July weekend. Here’s how it would work.
What is a shutdown? When the state has no authority to issue payments because it has no budget at the beginning of a new fiscal year beginning on July 1, the government ceases operations — for the most part.
That would happen if the Legislature doesn’t enact a budget by Friday night. However, the calendar provides a bit of a buffer, because July 1 falls on a Saturday. Monday, July 3 is a working day for state employees, but July 4 is holiday, lessening some of the immediate impact.
How much authority would LePage have in a shutdown? Even more than usual.
The 1991 shutdown under Gov. John McKernan, a Republican, came after he proclaimed a state of emergency in Maine. State law gives the governor wide authority during shutdowns, letting them do everything from suspending enforcement of certain laws to banning alcohol sales.
But LePage’s most important authority in an emergency is to choose that skeleton crew of state workers by deciding which employees are emergency or non-emergency.
What happens to those workers? Employees deemed essential must work without pay, but they’re paid for that work once there’s a budget. Non-emergency workers must stay home without pay.
LePage’s Wednesday memo was similar to McKernan’s in 1991, with the governor saying that emergency workers will be defined as “those that relate directly to ensuring the health and safety of Maine citizens and the protection of property from substantial damage.”
Like McKernan, LePage said that emergency workers who don’t show up for work could be disciplined, as could non-emergency workers who do show up. Vacation time couldn’t be used during shutdown days — even for people who had already scheduled vacations. LePage’s memo says the administration is unable to answer that before a budget is enacted.
However, the state’s needs can change as the shutdown goes on. In 1991, media reported that the number of emergency workers rose from 2,000 to 3,000 later in the shutdown.
LePage’s memo also said that paychecks will go out to state workers on June 28 and July 5 for work performed in June and that they won’t lose health insurance coverage.
Has the governor said who will work? He hasn’t presented that plan yet, though he’s hinted at one. We expect to hear more later this week.
The administration hasn’t answered specific questions about any plan for who will work. LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said in a Monday email that the governor is “making preparations to ensure that vital services continue and that the Maine people are well served by their government.”
The Maine State Employees Association, which represents more than 9,000 state workers, told members in a guidance last week that it also hasn’t gotten much information about a shutdown, although the administration has promised a list of emergency workers when one is issued.
Maine State Treasurer Terry Hayes, an independent who has been briefed by LePage’s budget department, said Tuesday that she has been told the governor will define emergency workers “very narrowly,” though she said she hasn’t been given specific figures.
In the Tuesday radio interview, LePage said he’d allow state parks to stay open because he fears “vandalism” if they close. They mostly operated with limited staffing in 1991. LePage also said that he would prioritize keeping workers who generate revenue for the state on the job.
Who else will probably work? Among the emergency workers in 1991 were obvious ones — state police, prison guards and mental health workers. Constitutional and public safety concerns will likely keep Maine’s court system at least partially open.
A court official said Wednesday that the plan is to reduce Maine dockets by more than half, with civil cases delayed except for urgent matters, including protection from abuse and harassment orders, child protective cases and involuntary mental health commitments. Criminal cases would be focused on people currently incarcerated. The Business and Consumer Court would close. It’s unclear which courthouses would remain open and which would close.
State workers who administer federally funded programs such as Unemployment Compensation, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program may also have to work. Unemployment and welfare offices were reopened days into the 1991 shutdown upon legal advice from then-Attorney General Michael Carpenter, a Democrat who now serves in the Maine Senate.
If the LePage administration doesn’t pay or allow people to apply for welfare benefits, Maine Equal Justice Partners, an anti-poverty group, has readied a federal lawsuit that it would file to force payments and allow applications, said Christine Hastedt, the group’s public policy director.
A shutdown wouldn’t have immediate impact on core functions at Maine’s university and community college systems, according to spokespeople. They’ll be open.
And who probably won’t work? Since LePage hasn’t signed off on plans, we don’t have too many answers, but it’s likely to be the rank-and-file state workforce — many of whom interact often with the public.
Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap plans to shut nearly his entire department, including closing Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices, said Kristen Muszynski, his spokeswoman. Most online services, including vehicle registration and license renewal, would remain available.
One of the bigger impacts of the 1991 shutdown was when the Maine Department of Transportation pulled inspectors and engineers from 100 major highway job sites, which stalled $3 million in work per week, the Associated Press reported at the time.
Maine’s construction industry is “nervous,” especially after work was delayed briefly for some companies in May during a dispute between LePage and Hayes over bonding rules. More delays could happen, but it’s unclear. There would be more impact that we can’t gauge now.
Will the private sector feel any pain otherwise? Yes, in many direct and indirect ways if a shutdown drags on.
Let’s start with the obvious: Employees represented by the Maine State Employees Association will lose wages that generate $2.5 million in daily economic impact, according to an analysis from the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy, with $944,000 in Kennebec County alone.
Greg Dugal, the CEO of the Maine restaurant and innkeepers associations, called a shutdown “disconcerting,” particularly around the holiday.
And Dana Connors, the president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce who was transportation commissioner in 1991, said businesses could be hurt with delays in functions of government often “taken for granted,” such as licensing or inspections.
“It’s pretty widespread and the impact is pretty intense and far-reaching,” he said.