It’s not known yet what the impact of a potential state government shutdown would be, but Maine’s last shutdown, in 1991, could give some indications. Most state courthouses closed, state parks and beaches closed, Mainers had to wait longer for food stamp applications to be reviewed, and state road crews were sidelined.

With lawmakers at an impasse on a state budget, Maine appears as close to a government shutdown as it has been since 1991, when failure to pass a budget resulted in a chaotic 16-day halt to myriad services.

Back then, most state courthouses closed, creating a backlog of cases. Road crews were sidelined. Bureau of Motor Vehicle offices were shuttered.

State parks and beaches closed, too, right at the start of the tourism season. At Popham Beach State Park, a 65-year-old Massachusetts man died after collapsing. There were no lifeguards on duty to administer CPR or call for additional help.

Roughly 10,000 state workers stopped getting paychecks and many of them picketed the State House angrily nearly every day. The employees ended up getting back pay, but it was a considerable hardship for people who lived paycheck to paycheck.

In a memo issued at the time, Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. wrote that “no state employees, except those determined to provide emergency services, will work until a budget is passed.”

Just as McKernan did, Gov. Paul LePage likely would have discretion over which state workers are “essential” and would remain on the job. In 1991, that meant police and prison guards, among others.


But if LePage has a plan for navigating a shutdown, he has yet to share it publicly.

“The constitution says you can’t spend money the Legislature doesn’t appropriate,” Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said. “The governor would have strong authority to make sure things don’t continue. It’s not quite martial law but it’s pretty darn close.”

Dunlap said the biggest source of angst in 1991 was that people couldn’t buy liquor. Back then, all liquor stores were run by the state. Now, that’s no longer the case.

In human services, only emergencies called into a hotline for reporting child abuse and neglect were investigated during the shutdown in 1991. Also, Mainers hoping to apply for Medicaid, food stamps and other welfare programs were forced to wait longer for the applications to be reviewed or approved.

Some Mainers experienced delays in receiving unemployment checks or were forced to wait until offices reopened to apply for unemployment benefits.

This week, a special committee of lawmakers that tried to broker a budget deal was briefed about how a shutdown might work. The briefing was led by Derek Langhauser – former staff attorney for McKernan and now president of the Maine Community College System – and he outlined a bleak picture.


On Thursday, a thick white binder labeled “shut down documents,” could be seen on the committee conference table.

Ramona Welton was among the state workers affected by the 1991 shutdown. She is now president of the Maine State Employees Association, the union that represents thousands of state workers.

“We’re hearing from a lot of members and we’re trying to educate them and calm them down,” she said.

But there remains a lot of uncertainty.

“It was not a pretty time back then and it wouldn’t be pretty this time, either,” she said. “The window is closing.”

Michael Carpenter, who was attorney general in 1991, remembers working around the clock to keep essential services going.


“There is inherent power in the executive branch to maintain essential services, but how do you define that?” said Carpenter, now a Democratic state senator. “Some calls are easy – state police, for instance – others are not.”

Carpenter was a Democrat working for a Republican governor – which mirrors the current dynamic between the Republican governor and Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills. But Carpenter said he doesn’t see LePage and Mills working together the way he and McKernan did 26 years ago.

“The governor and Attorney General Mills have a strained relationship,” he said. “That could cause some problems.”

In each of the previous two biennial budgets, the specter of a shutdown was raised but it never came to pass.

In 2013, when LePage vetoed a budget bill late in the session, a shutdown seemed possible before lawmakers eventually overrode the governor’s veto. The sticking points during those budget negotiations were proposed income tax cuts and temporary increases in sales, meals and lodging taxes.

The same thing happened again in 2015, when tax cuts and welfare reform proposals threatened to derail passage of a budget. LePage has said little about the prospect of a shutdown this year. He did release a video statement Thursday in which he praised “sensible Republican House members” for “asking for a better deal” on the budget.


While each side is staking its claim to what’s right, all the public will see is that government failed.

“That’s when people start to lose confidence in the system,” said Dunlap, the Democratic secretary of state and a former legislator. “I still have faith in the Legislature. I think they can get there, but not unless someone ends up eating, if not a whole crow, at least a drumstick.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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