AUGUSTA –– The group that would be hit the hardest under a government shutdown told lawmakers Friday they needed to get their job done and pass a state budget by June 30.

State workers who comprise the Maine State Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, said at a State House news conference that the impact of a shutdown would be widespread and lives would be put at risk unnecessarily. The union represents about 12,000 state workers and is Maine’s largest labor union.

Dean Staffieri, the union’s vice president and a child protective services worker in the Department of Health and Human Services, said he and his co-workers look after the more than 1,700 children in state custody at any given time. Those workers’ jobs are to make sure those children are safe, Staffieri said. “If state government shuts down on July 1, lives are at risk,” he said.

Staffieri said his agency hasn’t been told yet whether they would be deemed essential under a shutdown scenario. “If there is a contingency plan, the state hasn’t shared it with me or my caseworkers,” he said.

The Legislature is in a stalemate over the state’s next two-year budget, which under the state’s constitution needs to be enacted by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30. Lawmakers are divided over how to fund public schools and whether or not to repeal a 3 percent surcharge on household and small-business income over $200,000 that was approved by voters last fall and earmarked for public schools.

Republicans have argued the surcharge will hurt the state’s economy and drive away business and high wage earners, while Democrats have said the surcharge was approved by voters. It would provide nearly $320 million for schools and ensure that the state comply with another voter-enacted law requiring state government to pay 55 percent of the cost of public education.

Lawmakers have made competing counteroffers to increase education funding in the budget, but so far neither side has relented entirely on its position regarding the surcharge.

Union member Jane Gilbert said she lived through the last state government shutdown in 1991 and said it was devastating for state employees and the public. Gilbert, who served as the labor relations manager for the Maine Department of Transportation at the time, said the shutdown put a freeze on all highway and bridge construction and repairs, putting not only state workers out of a job but thousands of laborers who worked for private highway contractors.

“It was a big mess,” Gilbert said. “The shutdown was a double whammy for state workers. They were locked out of their jobs without pay and they didn’t receive the pay they had already earned because the state was shut down. They didn’t even get paid on schedule for the time they had worked previously.”

But Republicans, including Gov. Paul LePage, who has vowed to veto any budget that doesn’t repeal the surcharge, say the surcharge will give Maine the highest state income tax rate in New England and the second highest in the U.S.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, issued a letter Friday to all House members detailing scenarios of how long government would shut down depending on the timing of legislative action and a veto by LePage. Gideon also pointed out that of the last 10 budgets enacted by the Legislature, this year is the longest lawmakers have waited to pass a bill and send it to the governor.

“If Maine government shuts down, all of our districts will be severely impacted,” Gideon wrote. “State employees and state contractors could immediately stop receiving paychecks. Hundreds of services that our constituents count on – everything from the ability to renew driver’s licenses at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, applications for unemployment insurance, the functioning of our state parks could grind to a halt over the 4th of July week.”

While no formal negotiations on the budget took place Friday, legislative leaders were expected to continue their budget negotiations throughout the weekend.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog