With budget talks at an impasse at the State House, there is growing talk of a state government shutdown on July 1 the current budget runs out. It happened before, in the summer of 1991, and lasted several weeks.
“We want his head. …We want his head,” was the chant of the out-of-work state employees who flooded the halls of the State House. The head they wanted belonged to the governor at the time: Republican John McKernan.
They were not getting paid, could not get unemployment and were angry. Derek Langhauser, current president of the Community College System, was McKernan’s chief legal counsel at the time.
“There were thousands of protesters in the building,” Langhauser said. “Many with bullhorns. At the time, there was a camp of protesters as I recall in the park across the street.”
There was no budget because McKernan and the Republicans insisted on reforming the state workers compensation system after insurers, fed up with what they said were high costs, began leaving the state. But when the budget failed, no one was ready to deal with what quickly became a statewide crisis. Current state Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, was attorney general back in 1991. One of the questions he had to settle was who qualified as “essential state workers” under the emergency powers granted the governor.
“The easy calls were early on — keep the state prison guards in and the state troopers on the road. And then it became harder to define what was an essential state service,” Carpenter said.
In fact, Carpenter was asked to issue dozens of opinions in a very short time. Multiple lawsuits were being filed by those affected by the shutdown.
“Somebody from Massachusetts not being able to get a campsite at Reid State Park doesn’t fit that. Nor does somebody not being able to drink a bottle of Jack Daniels tonight fit that. Nor does the fact that a private contractor is not able to work his crew today on a DOT job site somewhere in Maine fit that definition,” Carpenter said in 1991.
Ditto for buying liquor on the Fourth of July. Back then liquor stores were operated by the state. Every day there were more questions and challenges. Human Services Commissioner Rollin Ives was forced to wait for clearance to send out welfare payments to poor Mainers, which were mostly federal dollars.
“We’re getting a clarification from the attorney general to be able to process payments to foster parents, some of the ASPIRE payments and payments to medical providers,” Ives said. Mainers were surprised when they could not register their cars or get a needed permit from a state agency. State offices were closed, and state workers who did show up for work found their office doors locked.
Sally Savoy worked for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
“I thought we would be back to work today,” Savoy said in 1991. “My friend had to take me to see with my own eyes. I mean … the people in the legislature and the governor are secure with their pay and their benefits. What about us?”
The shutdown stretched well into July, and the crowds of protesters at the State House didn’t let up. Lawmakers had trouble walking down the hallways to get past those pushing for a budget resolution. Using whistles, drums and bullhorns, the cacophony was so loud McKernan had trouble being heard at a news conference held in the cabinet room behind closed doors.
“I agree with my friends in the hall. I would like to be able to sign the budget,” Mckernan said at the time.
Reporters asked him whether he wanted to sign the budget, given his strong position on reforming workers compensation. Over the noise he told reporters it was time to end the shutdown.
“And I can assure you everyone in the legislature and in the State House feels that way,” he said. “I mean, this is not the way government should be conducted. It’s been a terrible experience for all involved.”
Carpenter and the few lawmakers who were in state service that summer share that view. They said they hope the current legislature and governor will understand why a repeat of the 1991 shutdown is something they all should work to avoid.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.