Chris Quint is the executive director of the Maine State Employees Association. To know Quint is to know a man whose passion for advocacy is rooted in the devotion and respect a son has for his dad.
You can hear the passion in Quint’s voice when he talks about his dad’s service to Maine and sense his resolve when you watch how fiercely he fights for the rights of today’s state employees.
A teen in 1991 when his father was put out of work by the only shutdown of state government in our history, Quint remembers how his dad scrambled to find temporary work and the hard conversations between his parents as they tried to plan for the unknown. It is an experience thousands of today’s public servants will repeat if the budget process fails to produce an agreement before the June 30 end of the fiscal year.
It might not be timely, but I contend a budget agreement will be achieved in time to keep state government operational at the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. Despite the political theater and rhetoric of the last week about a shutdown, we simply do not have the political power bases or galvanizing policy issue that could produce an unworkable stalemate in Augusta.
Maine cannot operate without a budget and, with the notable exception of the 1992-93 biennial budget, the Legislature has always been able to fund operation of state government.
As June drew to a close in 1991, a gap of about $300 million needed to be filled. Maine’s workers’ compensation rates were among the highest in the country, forcing many Maine employers to move out of state or close their doors. Republicans led by Gov. John McKernan and state Sen. Charlie Webster were determined that a 35 percent savings in workers’ compensation would need to be achieved to offset the higher taxes required to balance Maine’s budget in a down economy.
The power brokers in the Democratic majorities initially refused to negotiate comp reforms in a budget bill. In a time before term limits, it is safe to say that, House Speaker John Martin and Senate President Charlie Pray were used to getting their way. That is not the case today, when legislators hold leadership positions for, at most, a term or two. At the State House today, there is also a strong contingent of solution-minded lawmakers who can be counted on to keep the conversation moving forward. This is particularly true of the Republicans representing Augusta-area House and Senate districts who do not want to see their state employee constituents out of work.
The 1991 shutdown was a contentious and bitter time in Augusta. Unlike a strike or even a lockout, where workplace issues lead to a work stoppage, the thousands of employees affected by the shutdown were collateral damage, according to then-union President Mary Anne Turowski. Now the MSEA’s director of politics and legislation, she told me that employees who were without work massed at the State House to make their voices heard.
At one point 1,000 protesters stood on the stairs outside the Capitol, and lawmakers had to constantly run a gantlet of angry, sign-waving state employees in the hallways. When the anger and frustrations of thousands were focused on just a few administrative and legislative leaders, it created a contentious and intimidating working environment. And that is certainly how a top McKernan administration official, who spoke with me on background, remembers the 16 days of the shutdown.
While it required unexpected resolve, according to this official, the resulting workers’ compensation reforms justified the ordeal. Many in the business community today would agree that the McKernan workers compensation reforms have saved thousands of Maine jobs over the years.
Turowski may not share this assessment of the comp reforms, but she speaks respectfully about McKernan’s willingness to engage the union and his determined leadership.
Gov. LePage disliked his budget proposal the day he submitted it, but it was consistent with his principles and political philosophy. I can assure you that he will end up hating whatever comes out of the Legislature even more. But lacking a galvanizing policy issue that would unite LePage with minority Republicans, as was the case in 1991 with workers compensation reform, the governor has a secondary role in the budgetary process at this point. Compromise over taxes and spending will be achieved to enact a budget over the governor’s objections.
The more interesting issue will be whether LePage chooses to use the line-item veto and the support he can muster among Republicans to sustain selective cuts to the budget. The good news for state workers is that their work proceeds while these skirmishes work themselves out.
Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at: [email protected]