AUGUSTA — While most won't say it out loud, employees within Maine government were taking steps Monday to close the doors if lawmakers are unable to override Gov. Paul LePage's veto of the state's next budget.
LePage vetoed the budget Monday afternoon.
Key agencies that are deemed, "essential," including the Maine State Police and the state's Department of Corrections, have contingency plans in place, officials said last week.
"Every good department has a contingency plan," John Morris, the commissioner for the Department of Public Safety, recently said. Morris declined to say whether a meeting he had midweek with Gov. LePage was to discuss a possible government shutdown. "I'm not going to go there," Morris said.
Department of Corrections spokesman Scott Fish said in an email that the department also had a contingency plan in place.
Morris said he wanted to be careful not to cause unnecessary anxiety and that even talking about being ready could be misread to say that's what the LePage administration wanted, which wasn't the case.
The last time the state actually endured a government shutdown was in 1991.
Then Gov. John McKernan issued an executive order — just five days before the end of the fiscal year on June 30 — allowing so-called essential personnel, including state police, prison guards and psychiatric hospital employees, to remain on duty, without an actual state budget in place.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 state workers stayed on the job under the emergency order but another 10,000 were ordered to stay home.
McKernan declined a request for an interview on the topic but sources close to LePage have said the men have met and at least casually have discussed the matter.
As of Monday, LePage had not issued any executive orders regarding a shutdown and there was no order pending, according to his public relations staff.
Former lawmakers who were there for the 1991 shutdown said the circumstances this year are similar in some ways but are quite different in others.
One key difference, according to former Rep. Jim Handy, a Lewiston Democrat, is between McKernan and LePage's negotiating styles.
"McKernan was always willing to try to find resolution and common ground without the hyperbole — well what LePage has done has gone well beyond what is fair and decent," Handy said. "I never have seen such disrespect on a personal level coming from a governor."
Handy said that while McKernan took a firm stand on the issue of reforming the state's workers' compensation system, he never broke off completely talks with Democrats around the budget.
While LePage's staff have continued to deal with Democratic leaders in the Legislature, the governor has had very few meetings with rival lawmakers to try and broker a deal, Democratic leaders said again Monday.
Last week, LePage voiced some frustration over not being able to strike a bargain around so-called "right-to-work" bills and an expansion of Medicaid but much of LePage's statement on the issue was overshadowed by another comment he made regarding state Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.
LePage has since apologized if the comment offended some but didn't apologize to Jackson.
Just prior to those statements, LePage promised a group of anti-tax activists that he intended to veto the Legislature's budget.
Press clippings from 1991 show Democrats at the time were equally angry with McKernan, charging him with obstructing the will of a majority of voters as he opposed a $300 million tax increase without concessions for businesses around the workers' compensation issue.
McKernan, who held his ground, eventually prevailed on the issue but also signed on to the tax increases.
At the time, Senate minority leader Charlie Webster, a Farmington Republican who most recently served as the GOP state chairman, said the issue wasn't about workers and the budget but about taxes and what kind of state Maine would become.
"Maine is among the lowest-paid states, the highest-taxed states and has the third most generous welfare program in the country," Webster told the Maine Times newspaper. "If we don't do something, we are in danger of becoming just a Vacationland serving tourists."
That sentiment is similar to things LePage has said in recent days regarding the current budget. LePage has said his anti-tax increase position is about making Maine more attractive to business investment and about getting the state out of the economic doldrums among states.
Meanwhile Monday, Ginette Rivard, president of the Maine State Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, voiced frustration with LePage for refusing to meet with union negotiators about a potential shutdown until Friday, June 28, the last work day before a potential shutdown would start.
Rivard said in a release issued Monday that a shutdown could impact up to 10,000 workers involving everyone from child protective workers in the Department of Health and Human Services to those in the departments of labor and public safety.
"Our members also have questions about how they would be personally impacted by being locked out of their jobs for an indefinite period of time," Rivard said, urging lawmakers to support a veto override.
The Legislature, which was on recess Monday and Tuesday, is expected to reconvene Wednesday to vote on at least eight vetoes LePage issued last week and to take up the budget veto.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said he intends to take up the budget first thing when the House is set to convene at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
"The first thing we have to do is what is before us right now and stick to the votes we took and override the governor's veto," Eves told reporters. "All-in-all, Wednesday is going to be about everybody sticking to the commitments that they made when they voted on this budget."
If the Legislature is unable to override the veto, they will have just four days to come up with a compromise that LePage will support to avoid a government shutdown.