AUGUSTA — More than 150 state employees rallied Saturday morning at the State House to urge state legislators to pass a budget that would end the government shutdown.

The government shut down at midnight Friday after the House of Representatives and the Senate could not agree on a budget for the fiscal year that began Saturday.

Employees, some with children and other relatives in tow, marched from Capitol Park to the State House, passing in front of the governor’s mansion while chanting “shame, shame, shame.”

“We will have our voices heard, we will march on and we will live another day,” Maine State Employees Association President Ramona Welton told the assembled crowd.

The crowd moved onto the third floor of the State House after 10 a.m. and gathered outside the House chamber, where Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and several other supportive House members told the crowd they’d work as long as possible to end the shutdown and put them back to work.

“I’m so sorry that you have to be here today, and I’m sorry you have been put in this position by any of us,” Gideon said.

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, rounds of boisterous applause greeted legislators who had voted in favor the budget and chants of “shame, shame” were directed at those who opposed the plan. At least one Republican representative walked into the chamber directing “shame on you” chants at state employees.

For about 90 minutes, one representative and senator after another was given a loud introduction – by the union’s executive director, Rodney Hiltz, and political and legislative coordinator Jeff McCabe – and was serenaded with “claps of solidarity.” Some elected officials chose to wave and acknowledge the crowd, while others stopped and spoke for several minutes.

“We ran for office to represent all of you and all the people in our districts we care about,” said Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said that while he disagrees often with his colleagues on the other side of the aisle, their only constitutional duty is to pass a budget, and he said that requires compromise.

“We’re sent here to compromise, and none of us are terribly happy with this budget,” Katz said. “But our first responsibility is to keep government open.”

The Senate had voted 34-1 on Friday in favor of adopting the budget proposal.

While the shutdown will affect municipalities statewide, one place it will have a significant impact is in the capital city, Augusta. With a large portion of employees who work in Augusta being told they can’t come to work, it can be surmised that those workers, if they live outside of Augusta, won’t be coming to the city to shop or eat or spend money some other way.

Mayor David Rollins said he was standing with state employees, many of whom live in Augusta, because “it’s the right thing to do.

The state is Augusta’s largest employer, and Rollins said a shutdown affects not only those workers but also shopkeepers, auto dealers and other business owners and operators.

“We have a big stake in this, and so much of the dollars allocated in the budget are going to be missing from Augusta,” he said. “I want to be there for (the employees) because they are an important part of our community.”

MSEA members, many of whom were at the State House on Friday and stayed past midnight, started organizing around 9 a.m. Saturday in Capitol Park. Many of them were wearing purple T-shirts with “Stronger Together” printed on the back. Many carried signs that said things such as “Do Your Job” and “Let Us Work,” and almost all were chanting.

Welton said she was around during the last government shutdown, in 1991, and said there’s little similarity between the two. She said she doesn’t want to guess how things will turn out, but she said she’d guarantee her union and its employees weren’t going anywhere.

“We’ll be here as long as (the legislators) are here, and we’ll be here every day as long as the shutdown lasts,” she said. “There is enough blame for everybody, but we saw last night that one of the groups was willing to put the state open for business today, but there was no movement from the other side.”

The shutdown, despite its name, has not closed every part of state government. Maine State Police are still patrolling the roads, the Maine Warden Service is working the forests and bodies of water, and all state parks managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands in the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry are open.

Jonathan French, a civil engineer in the Department of Transportation, said he tried to save as much of his income tax refund as he could in preparation for a shutdown, but he feels sorry for those who don’t have the means to do that.

“You have to start thinking it’s a possibility, though you never want it to happen,” French said. “We’d rather keep working and keep being able to provide for our families. This is something nobody should ever have to go through.”

He said the union has done a great job of keeping its membership informed throughout the process, but there was little communication from state government. He said the whole shutdown just looks bad.

“It really paints a bad picture of Maine,” he said. “We need a state where the state employees are working and serving the people of Maine and all the tourists and whoever.”

As of 3 p.m. Saturday, state legislators were in session, working toward passing a budget that then would be sent to Gov. Paul LePage. LePage has said he would veto any budget that included an increase in taxes.


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