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Maine budget showdown recalls 1991 state shutdown

June 25, 2013

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — When Maine’s state government shut down 22 years ago, potholes went unfilled, courthouses closed and the booze stopped flowing.

Gov. Paul LePage has raised the specter of another shutdown with his veto of the two-year budget approved by lawmakers earlier this month. If legislators don’t override the veto when they convene Wednesday and reach no other resolution, Maine could see a repeat of 1991 when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

During the ’91 shutdown, state workers didn’t receive paychecks, residents couldn’t register their vehicles or get drivers or fishing licenses, the state couldn’t make Medicaid payments to hospital and nursing homes, and highway and bridge construction projects were put on hold. About 1,500 to 2,000 construction workers sat idle, and state parks had only skeleton staffs. Courts shut their doors.

In 1991, the state controlled liquor distribution, and restaurants, bars and resorts ran out of liquor. It was particularly bad because the shutdown came during the busy Fourth of July weekend, giving the state a bad name among tourists and resulting in lost business, said Richard Grotton, executive director of the Maine Restaurant Association.

“It was awful,” Grotton said. “It was a complete disruption of way too many lives. We do not want to go there.”

But Charlie Webster, the Republican Senate Leader in 1991, said other than state employees who didn’t work or receive paychecks, most people weren’t affected one way or the other by the shutdown.

“It was painful because the unions made a big deal out of it,” said Webster, of Farmington. “But the average person didn’t even notice it. The average Mainer wasn’t affected one bit by the shutdown.”

LePage vetoed the budget because it contains tax increases. Back in 1991, a disagreement over workers’ compensation reform sparked the shutdown. Republican Gov. John McKernan and his GOP allies insisted that the budget be tied to major changes businesses wanted made to workers compensation. Democrats resisted, and McKernan vetoed the budget.

Irate, screaming protesters jammed State House hallways and scores of state workers camped out in tents in a nearby park that came to be known as “union city.”

The shutdown was a hardship for thousands of state employees, especially those who lived paycheck to paycheck, worried about not making rent or day-care payments, said Mary Anne Turowski, who worked for the Department of Human Services at the time. She now works as political and legislative director for the Maine State Employees Association.

“It is a tremendous hardship. It’s also a tremendous psychological hardship because you’re out of work. One day you’re working, and the next day you’re not,” she said. “That was very stressful for people.”

During the standoff, a temporary spending plan resumed regular services for three days, but most of state government remained closed. Finally, after 16 days of negotiations, lawmakers adopted a budget that McKernan signed, ending the impasse.

Much of the workers’ comp issue was dealt with in the budget, and the rest was passed on to a “blue ribbon commission,” whose recommendations were later adopted by lawmakers and set the stage for an improved system.

Webster said he and other Republicans received death threats during the impasse and had police escorts through the State House. Still, he said, it ended up for the best with improvements to workers’ comp. The reforms created a better business climate and saved thousands of jobs over the years, he said.

Webster said he paid about $10,000 in workers’ compensation premiums for his four heating and air conditioning company employees 22 years ago, and that he pays about the same amount now for eight employees.

“It was unfortunate. It’s not the way government should work,” Webster said. “But in the end, I think the state’s better off because of it.”

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