Down again

State-government shutdown
By AL DIAMON  |  March 30, 2011

Here's a great idea for commemorating the 20th anniversary of Maine's last state-government shutdown in 1991: Let's do it again.

Planning this event won't be difficult. We already have most of the key elements in place:

• A partisan split over crucial issues.
• Inflammatory rhetoric from both sides.
• Inept, inexperienced, and intractable negotiators.
• Tactical missteps by powerful players.
• A reluctance on the part of the international community to commit ground troops.

Oops, sorry, that last one was a reference to Libya, where recent violent events bear no relationship to the budget dispute in Maine. I can't understand how that line snuck in here, but let's just forget about it.

Back to our discussion of the possibility that, as happened two decades ago during an impasse over workers' comp reform, Republicans and Democrats will be unable to agree on spending cuts before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. Such an occurrence would force most state offices to close.

As GOP Governor Paul LePage has noted, "I have not yet ordered the use of force, not yet ordered one bullet to be fired . . . when I do, everything will burn."

Again, I beg your forgiveness. That quotation wasn't from the governor, but from Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Its erroneous use in this context was inexcusable.

What LePage actually said in an interview with Capitol News Service was, "If that budget is altered, it is not my budget, it is the Legislature's budget. If they alter the pension [reforms], if they alter the tax breaks, if they alter the welfare reforms, those are the showstoppers."

Asked if that meant he'd veto a budget that contained compromises necessary to win Democratic votes, LePage said he would.

"Peaceful protests is one thing, but armed rebellion is another."

Apologies. Gaddafi slipped in again.

LePage's hard-line stance may play well with his base among Tea Partiers, ultra-religious factions, and loyalist militias, but it fails to acknowledge reality. Passing a budget requires a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers. That means a unified Republican caucus will need to convince at least four Democratic senators and a minimum of 23 Dem representatives to support it. To do that, there will have to be concessions, some of which undoubtedly won't be to the governor's liking.

By threatening a veto before budget hearings have even concluded, LePage has effectively destroyed most negotiating options available to GOP legislative leaders. Now, they can't back off the governor's demands that state workers take significant cuts in wages and benefits — a major sticking point for Democrats — without inviting the sort of intramural squabble between themselves and LePage that could inflict significant political damage on one of the combatants. After all, the governor has already emphatically rejected calls to ease up on public employees, telling Al Jazeera, "Labor in return for wages is virtually the same as enslaving a human being."

Or that could have been Gaddafi. I'm getting confused.

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