Paul LePage's reelection will return Maine to the kind of politics that led to the 2017 government shutdown.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (right), R-Newport, watches as votes come in on a vote board during the House of Representatives vote on the state budget at the Maine State House in Augusta Wednesday. Lawmakers are scurrying to avoid a state government shutdown. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

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Dean Staffieri is the president of MSEA-SEIU Local 1989.

Five years ago this month, Maine state government came grinding to a halt.

Agency offices closed their doors. Unemployment insurance was delayed. Construction projects were put on hold.

Thousands of workers who normally would be preparing to celebrate with their families on July 4 weekend instead were furloughed. Their lives and livelihoods were thrown into turmoil as uncertainty mounted about when their next paycheck would come.

The shutdown that caused this mess was the culmination of a months-long fight over the 2017 state budget. While fingers could be pointed at many for the failed negotiations, there was one man who I believe was most responsible for the debacle — former Gov. Paul LePage.

From the beginning of the negotiation process that year, LePage seemed intent on forcing a fight. He led off by proposing a two-year budget riddled with cuts that would have slashed vital state services, put state employees out of work, and devastated communities across the state.

Once the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate began to negotiate  over their own, more reasonable, budget proposals, LePage began to inject chaos and made  a series of ever-shifting demands that made it unclear what he would support.

Finally, as the deadline loomed, LePage delivered the final blow during what was described as an “aggressive” confrontation during a meeting with legislative leaders at the governor’s residence, forcing the government into a shutdown.

LePage’s gridlock in Augusta, caused by fanning the flames of partisan rancor, was nothing new. Time after time during his eight years in office, LePage sowed chaos and dysfunction by fighting with Democrats, Republicans, and Mainers of all stripes, instead of actually solving problems.

He vetoed more bills than all Maine governors since 1917 combined. One session, he vetoed every bill sponsored by a Democrat out of pure spite after he failed to get his way on a tax issue.

He repeatedly fought with courts, federal agencies, and policy advocates to stop the implementation of bipartisan policies like Medicaid expansion, which has since provided more than 90,000 Maine people with health care.

He even went to war with his own party, drawing criticism for causing dysfunction and campaigning against GOP leadership.

This combative and chaotic approach did not just cause headaches for legislators in Augusta — it has lasting negative effects on people across the state. By the end of his two terms, LePage’s negligent leadership had caused Maine to lose out on almost $2 billion in federal funds, held our economy back, and forced tens of thousands of Mainers to go without health care.

The chaos that LePage sowed ensured that almost any successor would have been an improvement.

Gov. Janet Mills has not just met this admittedly low bar, but has provided the brave, compassionate leadership that Maine people deserve. In the past three years, Augusta has once again become a place where Republicans, Democrats, and independents can come together without worrying that the governor will derail compromise.

As a result, legislators have scored some big, bipartisan victories for Maine people, including legislation to fight climate change, alleviate the housing crunch, and help the state’s economy recover from COVID-19. And instead of having protracted fights over the budget, Mills has now signed two bipartisan  budgets into law.

Unfortunately, LePage’s attempts to gum up the works and bog Maine down in partisan bickering aren’t quite over. This year he’s campaigning to take back his old office, and already he’s using smear tactics against Mills and fighting with members of both parties over bipartisan policies. There’s no doubt that if he wins, he’ll pull Maine backward to the chaos and dysfunction that caused the government shutdown of 2017. We can’t let that happen.