Readers have likely already heard of last week’s political pandemonium: Gov. Paul LePage and 60 House Republicans forced a government shutdown after blocking a $7.1 billion budget compromise.
It’s also likely that readers were directly affected by this, as the shutdown left at least 9,000 state workers without a job, and slowed or halted critical services to vulnerable Mainers.
According to the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy, this shutdown cost about $2.5 million dollars a day (about a million a day in Kennebec County alone) in economic impact from government employees forced to stay home from work. Only emergency essential workers like prison staff, police, and child welfare workers will continue offering services during the shutdown, although they’re technically doing so without being paid.
The Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services staffed just four emergency staff members. The Department of Labor reported that they will provide “limited unemployment benefits,” and their customer claims center will be closed. Half of Maine’s 36 courthouses were closed over the weekend, with only open per county.
The effects were widespread; the Portland Press Herald published a convenient list of all its impacts detailing what is and isn’t open during a government shutdown.
This shutdown, the likes of which Maine hasn’t experienced in 26 years, prompted several hundred state workers and concerned citizens to protest outside the state house in Augusta chanting “Do Your Job, Let Us Work!”, while inside, tense exchanges between Republicans and Democrats took place during negotiations.
Protesters, most of them government workers from the Maine State Employees Association, occupying space in the State House in Augusta last Saturday. Photo By: Kaitlin Toto Mullen of She's a Teacher Photography
Thankfully, as the Phoenix goes to print, Maine's government isn't shut down anymore, but what were the reasons behind the 4-day long drama?
At the center of the disagreement was a (voter approved) 3 percent tax surcharge on Mainers earning more than $200,000 a year, a move that would have injected $320 million into the public school system.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Winterport) and House Speaker Sara Gideon (D-Freeport) conceded bitterly and voted for a new budget that repealed that 3 percent tax increase on the rich and the investment into education down to $162 million. While that compromise garnered support from 19 out of 20 Senate Republicans, House Republicans and LePage blocked it because they oppose a lodging tax increase from 9 to 10.5 percent.
LePage has also threatened to take the full 10 days to act on any budget that he doesn’t approve.
Late Saturday night, LePage’s ally House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) pitched a fourth set of budget changes that he said was backed by the Governor. It included even more proposals like a pilot program for a statewide teacher contract that legislative Democrats oppose, a tax reform to help commercial loggers and a registry of tax-exempt property held by land trusts.
But the Governor told reporters later that day that the budget was Fredette's, leaving it unclear whether he’d sign off on it. Democrats struggled to find out who they should really be negotiating with.
Adding to confusion, the new Republican budget costs more than the Democratic budget and arrived at the 11th hour, without the necessary time to analyze the new elements which many see as demands. Was this a negotiation or an ultimatum? It’s not far-fetched to assume that the Republicans used the shutdown as a hostage situation to force as many budget changes as possible. While this is speculation, it’s clear that nearly all Democrats voted for a budget they hated to avoid a shutdown, but it wasn’t good enough.
Rep. Tom Winsor (R-Norway) defended his rejection of the Thibodeau/Gideon budget, telling the Phoenix that the 3 percent tax increase was the most significant issue, but was far from the only one.
“The budget we rejected contained no real significant education reforms that direct money into the classroom. It just nibbled around the edges and continues to overfund the broken status quo," said Winsor. "House Republicans also rejected the lodging tax increase, in support of no net tax increases over the last biennium. In our proposal, House Republicans lower fees on working professionals, who have been overcharged, letting balances build up. This eliminates the legislature’s slush fund and puts money back in the pockets of licensed professionals."
Diane Russell, a former House Rep. who was protesting the shutdown in Augusta all weekend, said that it's not clear why the Thibodeau/Gideon budget was rejected.
“I have never heard of a budget where every single Democrat in the House and the Senate side voted for it,” said Russell, “They were terrified of the budget, but voted for it anyway, because they knew a shutdown wasn’t the answer.”
Winsor said that he took this shutdown situation seriously.
"No one wants to see a shutdown and no one wants to see state workers off the job," said Winsor. "However, the 9,000 state workers who are potentially impacted are part of the 1.3 million Mainers who are impacted by this two-year budget that sets the course for our great state.”
Shenna Bellows, a state Senator representing District 14, posted on her Facebook after the first budget vote that House GOP members didn't call for a reasonable compromise, but rather, a truce.
“As I cast my vote, I do so under protest,” wrote Bellows. “I will continue to advocate for education for every Maine child. I will continue to advocate for a comprehensive and meaningful approach to mental health services and the opiate crisis. I will continue to fight for what the people tell us they want.”
“Every time Governor LePage and House Republicans made new demands, they had to be reviewed and scored for fiscal impact. All of this took up more time,” said Ben Chipman who represents Portland in the state Senate. “In the meantime, 12,000 state workers and all of our state's residents who will want to access state agencies and services were being held hostage by Governor LePage and the 60 House Republicans who voted to shut down state government.”
Some Democrats pondered whether the rejected compromise presented an opportunity to craft a whole new budget that doesn’t repeal the tax increase for wealthy Mainers.
Mike Sylvester, a Democratic Socialist and House Rep for Portland, rallying concerned citizens at the State House with a chant:"Show me what democracy looks like." Photo by Kaitlin Toto Mullen (She's a Teacher Photography)
“They have made the classic negotiating mistake of not recognizing a win when they had it, and that’s not going to come again,” said Mike Sylvester a House Representative (D-Portland) to protesters at the State House on Saturday. “Because those of us who had to walk through coals to get to a place where we gave up this fair tax distribution, what was right for the state of Maine, they wanted us to kneel in glass as well. But that’s not going to happen because we’re going to fight for what is right.”
But in the end, Governor LePage got what he wanted: the elimination of a $20 million lodging tax increase, and 3 percent tax increase on the wealthy. Many progressives saw the final negotiations as less of a compromise and more of an ultimatum that went against the will of the voters.
"The voters wanted more progressive taxation to pay for public education," wrote Jon Hinck, a former House Rep. "Due to the determined obstruction of our Governor and his band of House Republicans, we got spending commitments with no revenue aside from what is raised from Maine's middle class under the unfortunate current tax scheme. The Governor's win at the game of chicken harms the people who put him in office."
For now, the question that will likely remain in the minds of many frustrated Democrats and Senate Republicans is simply why? Why did the House GOP risk the livelihoods of working Mainers to protect the financial interest of the state’s most wealthy? Why did they push so hard to cut the education investment in half? Why did Rep. Tom Windsor (R-Norway) say that there’s nothing unusual about these budget negotiations?
And most perplexing of all, why did they vote against a compromise which nearly every Senate Republican supported, and included every provision they originally wanted, without a clear explanation?
“It’s the million-dollar question,” said Russell. “These folks got everything they wanted, but they still shut the government down and can’t articulate why they did it. It’s disgusting and unconscionable.”
“If you want to build an economy that works for everyone, you have to have a system of government that represents everyone, and right now we clearly don’t.”
SIDEBAR: Here’s the GOP’s (ever-changing) list of demands
Senator Nate Libby, who represents Lewiston, posted the full list of the House Republicans’ demands on his Facebook page and writing: “This is not a negotiation - this is the Governor and House GOP holding the state and its citizens hostage in a government shutdown.”
June 30th - 2 hours before shutdown
$160 million in additional funding for education over the governor’s original proposal, $35 million more than the last proposal from House Republicans
Creates a voluntary pilot for statewide teacher contract for school districts
Targets funding to raise teacher’s salaries in rural districts that are currently penalized by the regional districts
Restores $5 million for grants to school districts for regional efficiencies and programs for a total of $10 million in biennium
Restores $2 million for grants to municipalities for regional efforts for a total of $5 million in FY18
Ranked Choice Voting Repeal
Introduced important reforms to the Tree Growth Program, allowing the enforcement of tree growth plans
Required conservation land fee owners to register their properties with DACF to identify exempt lands
Eliminates General Assistance for individuals with no legal status - provides language to allow local municipalities to provide GA instead
Provides $10 million for Direct Care Workers - from FHM and GA
Restores the administration’s proposal to create a new cabinet-level Department of Technology Services to position the state to address cyber security threats across the state and more effective IT infrastructure management
Eliminates the lodging tax increase proposed in the Gideon-Thibodeau plan
And here’s what the House GOP added on July 1st, after the shutdown
Restore 8 legal positions at DHHS that provide guidance on rulemaking, contracting, and procurement that were eliminated previously
Restore the amount of savings from position eliminations to $3.5 million
Add $2.5 million match in each year for hospital rebasing
Remove language that allows state employee’s children to go onto MaineCare
Reject the $2 million taken from property taxpayers in the unorganized territory for education
Homestead ($10.4 million and $25.1 million to restore completely)
Increase pension deduction from $10,000 to $35,000 over a five year period
Restore proposal to move Broadband to DECD
Eliminate the $4.9 Bring College to ME program at MCCS