AUGUSTA – State lawmakers are gathering to cast a critical vote Wednesday on the state’s next two-year budget.
Gov. Paul LePage has vetoed the $6.3 billion proposal, which was crafted by the Legislature’s budget-writing committee and approved by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders.
Lawmakers will take votes Wednesday on whether to override the governor’s veto. Should lawmakers not override the veto, state government could be shut down for the first time since 1991. The state constitution requires a balanced budget to maintain government operations.
Democratic leaders and some Republicans say they are confident that they’ll have enough votes to override the governor’s veto. LePage, meanwhile, has been urging Republicans to reject the budget compromise because it contains temporary tax increases.
The first vote in the House of Representatives is scheduled to take place Wednesday morning.
If they don’t override, Maine will be on the brink of its first state government shutdown since 1991. That would happen only if no budget is approved by July 1, when the next fiscal year begins.
How a shutdown might affect Maine residents in 2013, however, is unclear.
David Heidrich, a spokesman for LePage’s budget department, wrote in an email Tuesday that the department “would prefer to avoid discussing hypotheticals” regarding a possible shutdown.
Still, questions are streaming in to the Maine State Employees Association, said the union’s lawyer, Tim Belcher. The union is set to meet with the LePage administration on the possible effects of a shutdown on Friday.
“Obviously, we’re gearing up for the worst-case scenario,” Belcher said. “We’re concerned about whether our employees get paid and whether they’ll have health insurance.”
Five states shut down government at some point between 2002 and 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2011, Minnesota shuttered state offices for almost 20 days.
For all but three days of the 16-day Maine shutdown in 1991, state offices and agencies were closed, state parks had few lifeguards and rangers, and highway projects were abandoned. Public safety was one of the few state activities that were uninterrupted.
Charlie Webster of Farmington, who was among a group of 13 state senators who forced the shutdown in 1991, said the only people who care about the impact are “Democrats, the press and the public employees union.”
“The average person in Maine is living his life and doesn’t care if the government is functioning,” he said.
The 1991 shutdown was presided over by a Republican governor and a Democrat-led Legislature, the same as the current dichotomy.
Then, Webster and other Republicans were asking for workers’ compensation system reforms to reduce rates paid by businesses. Democrats insisted on preserving worker benefits. The shutdown ended after Democrats agreed to reforms.
In a 1994 paper for the Maine Policy Review, then-Gov. John McKernan called the shutdown “the low point of our administration,” but “also the turning point.” He said it focused necessary attention on making Maine business-friendly and fixed the system.
LePage spokesman Peter Steele declined to comment Tuesday when asked if the governor sees this as a similar turning point. His office said last week it wasn’t speaking with the Portland Press Herald because of perceived bias against the administration.
But the governor has said a shutdown would be preferable to the budget the Legislature has passed. It would temporarily raise Maine’s sales tax to 5.5 percent from 5 percent and increase Maine’s meals-and-lodging tax to 8 percent from 7 percent.
Democratic lawmakers, joined by a number of Republicans, have said the budget is better than the one the governor proposed in January.
LePage called for eliminating $200 million in revenue sharing to Maine cities and towns. The budget developed by the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee would restore $125 million of that, as well as $9.1 million that LePage proposed cutting from Maine’s homestead property-tax exemption program.
Most State House observers doubt a shutdown will happen. Lawmakers need two-thirds majorities in both chambers to pass the budget. They got that the first time, with a 102-43 vote in the House and a 25-10 vote in the Senate.
“I’m confident we have the votes to override,” said Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta. “For us to dig our heels in and say we’re not going to support the bipartisan work of the committee and shut state government down, I don’t think that’s a responsible thing to do.”
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at: