Protesters surround lawmakers in State House rotunda on July 3. (Photo by Andy O’Brien)
Protesters surround lawmakers in State House rotunda on July 3. (Photo by Andy O’Brien)
Following a three-day state government shutdown, a week of angry protests and tense negotiations, late Monday evening Gov. Paul LePage finally agreed to sign a $7.1 billion biennial budget and reopen state government. It was the first budget he hasn’t vetoed since 2011, and the final amended version passed unanimously in the Senate and 147-2 in the House. The shutdown locked out several thousand state employees and disrupted services at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Office of Child and Family Services. But the governor didn’t express any regret for his role in the crisis.

“I thank legislators for doing the right thing by passing a budget that does not increase taxes on the Maine people,” said LePage in a statement. “I especially thank the House Republicans for standing strong throughout these very tough budget negotiations to protect Mainers from an unnecessary tax hike. I am pleased to announce state government will reopen and resume normal operations.”

The final deal repeals the citizen-initiated tax on the top 2 percent of income earners to fund education and also rejects a Democratic proposal to replace the income-tax hike on the wealthy with an increase in the lodging tax. Democratic leadership praised the deal for providing an additional $162 million to support classroom teachers and $14.5 million to support direct care workers, such as home health aids and nursing home employees. 

“This unnecessary shutdown needed to come to an end. Despite House Republicans throwing up roadblocks at every turn, we were able to close a budget that makes the largest investment in public education in our state’s history,” said Speaker Sara Gideon (D-Freeport) in a statement. “But beyond that, this agreement protects Maine’s most vulnerable from devastating service cuts, invests in those that care for our seniors and Mainers with disabilities, helps fight increasing property taxes and makes a significant investment in workforce development.

The budget rejects a number of the governor’s proposed cuts to public assistance programs and MaineCare as well as to rural hospitals like Waldo County General and LincolnHealth. It also restores funding to Head Start, puts a moratorium on the LePage administration’s cuts to behavioral health care, allocates $10 million for workforce training and funding for services for people with developmental disabilities and autism. 

However, Maine Education Association lobbyist John Kosinski, who managed the “Yes on 2” education surtax campaign, pointed out that the budget also thwarts the will of the voters by effectively overturning the results of the November referendum. The two biggest winners, he pointed out, are the very wealthy and people who stay in hotels. 

“And while some are trumpeting the budget as the largest increase in school funding in history, I object,” wrote Kosinski on Facebook. “This budget repeals Question 2, which would have sent $320 million to schools. Instead, schools get half of that amount, while the top 2% of Mainers will get the largest tax cut in the history of the state. Yet again, the needs of the many are sacrificed for the greed of a few.”

And as several lawmakers from both sides of the aisle argued, the shutdown could have been easily averted on Friday had it not been for the governor’s ego. 

“It was the Seinfeld shutdown,” said one Republican lawmaker. “A show about nothing.”

Thursday: A Tentative Deal Is Reached

It’s easy to get lost in Gov. LePage’s ever-changing list of demands in the negotiation process, but when he dropped his $6.8 billion budget last January, his primary aim was simple: cut taxes for the rich, cut as many services for the poor as legally possible and put himself in charge of negotiating teacher contracts. So by the end of last week, the governor was infuriated with Democrats and Senate Republicans for proposing a  $7.1 billion budget that not only provided $162 million to meet the state’s voter-mandated obligation to pay 55 percent of the cost of education, but also included a 1.5-percent increase in the lodging tax, amounting to an additional $3 a night for a $200 hotel room. 

While the governor himself had originally proposed the lodging-tax hike in his budget because “tourists can afford to pay a little more,” he wanted to use that revenue to offset income-tax cuts. In the past, the governor simply vetoed budgets he didn’t like and sent them back to the Legislature, which promptly overrode the veto. But this time he vowed to hold the budget for the legally permitted 10 days if the Legislature sent him a budget he didn’t like on June 30, which would have triggered a 10-day partial state shutdown.

“Look, a shutdown is necessary for the future of Maine,” LePage said during a June 29 radio appearance on WGAN. “That’s the way I look at it now. It’s about the future.” He then added, “They’re playing chicken at a hundred miles an hour. You wanna play chicken, let’s play chicken.”

The governor then rattled off a list of demands. In addition to his statewide teacher contract scheme, he wanted to reform the state’s tree growth property tax exemption law and to require land trusts to report how much land they have taken off the tax rolls — 96 percent of land trust land is actually on the tax rolls, according to data from Maine Coast Heritage Trust. LePage also made clear that he wanted the budget to include a provision to reduce scheduled minimum-wage increases.

In classic LePage fashion, the governor then attempted to marginalize Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty.) by praising his Democratic opponent.

“I’ve gained a lot of respect for Sara Gideon,” said Le-Page. “Mike Thibodeau, I’ll be very honest, he tells me one thing and then the next morning I wake up and it’s totally different. I don’t know. He assured me that there was not going to be any tax increases and now I’m going to work this morning and there’s going to be a tax increase.”

Meanwhile, a very gloomy-sounding Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty.) hit the airwaves Thursday morning to make his case for passing the budget. He said repealing the “job-killing” surtax was reason for Republicans to celebrate and tried to point out the realities of working in a divided government, with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans with only a one-seat majority in the Senate. “So I think maybe the easiest way to describe the situation is we have Paul LePage literally on one side and Bernie Sanders figuratively on the other side,” Thibodeau told WVOM radio. “And trying to convince folks to find common ground isn’t easy.”

A few hours later, the governor further doubled down on his threat by issuing a “civil preparedness emergency order” in anticipation of a state shutdown. In a press release, LePage said that he had directed his commissioners to determine which employees were essential and which ones would be idled during a potential shutdown. 

That night, Thibodeau and Gideon along with two Democrats and one Republican senator on the six-member “super committee” voted 5-1 to accept the compromise, albeit not without protests. Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen of Falmouth said she would cast her vote for the measure to avert a shutdown but chided leadership for subverting the work of the Appropriations Committee and cutting minority caucuses out of the process by hammering out a final compromise behind closed doors.  

“This causes me, honestly, great concern. If we continue down this path we may as well dismantle the Appropriations Committee,” said Breen. “And frankly, given all the education policy that’s been discussed in this budget process I’m not sure why we need an education committee either. If all we’re going to do is leave the budget process to partisan leaders of the Legislature, the policy committees become less and less relevant.”

Then Rep. Tom Winsor (R-Norway) dealt the compromise a fatal blow in his dissenting vote. The House Republicans were going to prove that LePage was “relevant” in the process.

Friday: #PaulLePageMatters

On Friday morning, public employees and progressive activists armed with placards swarmed the halls of the State House, demanding that the Legislature avert a shutdown and honor the will of the 383,428 people who passed Question 2. Meanwhile, legislative leaders worked to round up votes for the deal. Knowing that the compromise was already in trouble, Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook Cty.) offered to withdraw the lodging-tax hike, but the governor had other demands and House Speaker Sara Gideon told the Bangor Daily News that it was too late in the process to amend the budget deal. 

In the hallway outside the House chamber, Department of Health and Human Services caseworker Pamela Paro demonstrated with her two children Delaney and Sawyer. She said that because she had seniority, during the shutdown she would be one of three emergency caseworkers in an office that is normally that is normally staffed with 30 employees to handle child abuse reports for Cumberland County.

“My program administrator said we may be getting two child abuse reports a day. A normal caseworker would get three a week,” she said. “I said that’s going to mean overtime for us. Are we going to get paid for that? And she said she doesn’t know.” 

She added that caseworkers would only be able to respond to the most severe situations, such as a suicide or significant child abuse like a head trauma or sexual abuse case. 

“We get hundreds of reports a day and when you get assigned, by federal law you have to respond to cases of sexual abuse within 72 hours,” said Paro. “But when you only have three workers, it’s going to be really hard to respond.” 

Foster parents also wouldn’t have anyone at the state to call and would not receive payments during the shutdown. Meetings and visits scheduled between foster children and their parents would also have to be cancelled, said Maine State Employees President Ramona Welton.

“So you’ve got a family that’s already torn apart and you’re trying to facilitate a reunion or the best transition for needy kids and you’re not supporting that,” she said. “I mean this directly impacts our members because they’re not going to be able to do their jobs, they’re not going to get paid. But it also impacts the citizens of the state of Maine.” 

Down the hall, Maryann Griffin, a geology technician with the Department of Environmental Protection, said her job is to monitor contaminated water systems, but she had been deemed non-essential during the shutdown. 

“If there’s breakthrough they could possibly be drinking bad water,” she said.

Lewiston resident Dave Projansky, another idled state employee, said he oversees 68 contracts for nonprofits delivering services for the elderly and disabled, but that none of them would get paid during the shutdown.

Then came the moment of truth. As Rep. Norman Higgins (R-Dover Foxcroft) walked into the House chamber, he expressed frustration to House Majority Leader Erin Herbig that his GOP House colleagues would not go along with the plan. “This is the best budget Republicans could hope for,” he said.

Progressive Democrat Craig Hickman of Winthrop said that while he originally had every intention of voting against the “steaming pile of manure” budget, he finally decided it wasn’t worth voting to shut down the government.

“Madam Speaker, no matter how much I abhor the situation that is upon us tonight, no matter how much I despise the process by which we arrived here, no matter how much I detest that the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box just last November will not be honored, I simply cannot participate in such destruction,” he said right before casting his vote for the compromise.

But in the end, although the Senate passed the budget 34-1, 60 House Republicans voted no, depriving the compromise of the 101 votes needed to pass it. As the chamber stood silent and visibly tense right after the final vote at 9 p.m., Rep. John Martin (D-Eagle Lake) stood up to ask House Republicans about rumors that the governor had a last-minute budget to propose before the shutdown. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette replied that he did. And soon the leaders of all four caucuses headed across the street to meet the chief executive. 

At 10 p.m., the governor unveiled his list of 13 demands. In addition to the statewide teacher’s contract, tree growth reform, land trust accounting, and scrapping the lodging-tax hike, the governor also called for repealing parts of the new voter-mandated minimum-wage increase and ranked-choice voting as well as a new IT position in his cabinet and eliminating welfare for refugees. A visibly angry Speaker Gideon returned to the rostrum just 12 minutes before the midnight shutdown to vent her frustration. 

“He presented us with a list of demands and when they weren’t all met — and I want to indicate to you that I was willing to work with most of them, almost all of them — he had a temper tantrum,” Gideon told the House. “He walked out with the words ‘shut ’er down!’ I want you all to know tonight that after the governor’s aggressive behavior, specifically towards me, I left the Blaine House, though my three male colleagues chose to stay and continue talking.”

And then the state shut down. State employees chanted “shame!” as bleary-eyed House Republicans shuffled out of the chamber. The next morning, Rep. Paula Sutton (R-Warren) celebrated the shutdown as a triumph for Republicans. 

“When no one else is defending the sleeping, unsuspecting taxpayer,” wrote Sutton on Facebook. “….When no one else is willing to stand their ground for the job-creators ... when no one else demands accountability and fiscal responsibility ... the House Republicans will be there ... defending them ... and demanding lower tax burdens.... And we simply will not yield to the public employee union bosses and special interests who own the Democrat Party and don’t give a damn how high your taxes are. And to my House Republican colleagues ... I am so proud of you tonight. We, alone, have the courage and determination to do right by those who are defenseless, if not for us. I think EVERYONE now knows we are relevant ... and that the Governor matters ... and any budget deal will have to satisfy us and Governor Paul LePage. Yeah, I think they get that now.”

Saturday/Sunday: The Demands Keep Coming

By 12 noon on the first day of the shutdown, the governor’s list of demands had grown from 13 to 25 items. Now he also wanted to eliminate a few hundred state employee positions. 

“These are not huge items,” Rep. Ken Fredette told the committee of six. “I think those are, to some extent, make-or-break items for the chief executive. I don’t want to speak for him totally, but those are make-or-break items.”

Sen. Cathy Breen (D-Cumberland Cty.) called the offer “obscene” and accused Fredette of “piling on demands.”

“I don’t know who I am negotiating with,” Breen snapped. “Is it you, Mr. Fredette?  Or is it the chief executive?”

“What I am trying to do is get us to ‘yes,’” Fredette replied.

Sen. Roger Katz (R-Kennebec Cty.) then pointed out that the LePage/Fredette proposal actually would spend more than the compromise the House GOP just killed. At the time, the LePage budget was $7.125 billion, while the compromise was $7.105 billion. The exchange led former House Speaker Mark Eves to speculate that the mistake could have been avoided if the governor hadn’t forced his own budget director, Richard Rosen, to resign last month for sharing budget information with lawmakers. 

The following day, House Republicans submitted their third round of amendments in an attempt to balance the budget. As lawmakers wrestled with the new proposals, Speaker Gideon told Fredette that she could “barely contain” her “fury” at his constantly changing list of demands. 

That afternoon, LePage appeared in a video at the Blaine House wearing shorts and a golf shirt demanding a statewide teacher contract and no tax hikes. Late Sunday evening, the committee passed another agreement with a few concessions to the governor, but since it didn’t include all of the governor’s demands, the House GOP rejected it. 

Monday: Victory?

On Monday morning, the crowd of protesters had grown to a few hundred as they marched from Capitol Park to the State House chanting, “Today’s the day to get it done!” LePage released yet another video threatening to hold the budget for 10 days if it included a tax increase. And then, according to a spokesperson for the Senate Republicans, he called Senate GOP leaders to tell them he planned to leave the state for 10 to 12 days to go on vacation.

Addressing the House Democratic caucus, Speaker Sara Gideon said she had received a handwritten list of demands from the governor with his signature. But she said Rep. Ken Fredette still couldn’t guarantee that he had the votes if they presented an amended budget for a vote.

“I kept trying to say to him, but how do we close this? Where are you? Where are your people?” she said. “Who do you bring along when X, Y or Z happens? The answer was never clear. And at the end of it, what I understand he was communicating to me was that he was not ever going to bring anybody along on this and that he would only simply release people.”

Later that morning, despite getting six more House Republicans to support the budget, the vote still fell short at 92-54. However, that evening, after LePage sent a letter to legislators pledging to sign the budget if the lodging-tax hike was removed, Democrats finally gave in on the lodging tax in exchange for more funding for Head Start and a moratorium on cuts to behavioral health services. With the shutdown averted, the crowds in the halls of the State House cheered, but as Sen. Shenna Bellows (D-Kennebec Cty.) noted, the whole crisis could have likely been avoided if the governor had just accepted Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson’s offer to remove the lodging tax in the first place. 

For many teachers and progressive voters, the whole ordeal was a dispiriting realization that a governor who only received 294,519 votes in the last election could crush a law passed by 383,428 Maine voters.

“As I have said all along, I worry this is bad for the future of our democracy, that a small group of legislators can overturn the free election of Maine people is something we must talk about starting now until November 2018,” wrote “Yes on 2” manager John Kosinski. “Some politicians are so steeped in their ideology and arrogance, they think they know better than the voters who elected them. This cannot stand.”

The governor’s behavior was certainly reckless throughout the negotiations, but backing him every step of the way was an army of 60 steely-eyed foot soldiers willing to disrupt state services and put the livelihoods of 12,000 state employees on the line to prove their fealty to their erratic leader. And the unfortunate lesson for future budget negotiations is abundantly clear: hostage taking gets the goods.  As former Republican state Rep. Jon McKane of Newcastle put it on Facebook, “Heh heh — no 3% surcharge, no increase in lodging tax, Unions ignored, Dems heads exploding. Yup — we win.”

The big question is whether their constituents will reward them or punish them next year for putting pointless partisan politics over the welfare of the state.