Shutting down state government is now part of Maine’s political DNA. Ever since the disastrous year of 1991, when the 13-member Republican Senate caucus led by Charlie Webster conceived the strategy, then convinced GOP Gov. John McKernan to go along, the press buzzes with shutdown prospects whenever budget talks drag into June — almost every odd-numbered year.

In July, it happened again, for reasons no one will be able to explain to our grandchildren. This time, it was a minority Republican House caucus, supporting GOP Gov. Paul LePage, who created the mischief, but it was a Potemkin shutdown over Fourth of July weekend, with the governor conveniently giving state employees Monday off.

LePage and his allies tried to cram major policy changes into the budget, mostly unsuccessfully — changes normally requiring public hearings, give and take, and informed debate, but which LePage attempts by whim. The only significant change in the budget LePage signed and the one Democrats and Senate Republicans supported earlier was elimination of a lodging tax increase, so perhaps it was about that.

Truly, the Shutdown of 2017 exemplified Karl Marx’s long-ago remark about post-Napolean France, that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

Still, it worked for those who initiated it; before July 1 rolled around, Democrats pledged to defend Question 2, and the $320 million in tax revenue it brought in for public schools, had abandoned their position. They justified this by dread of a shutdown, just as Democrats in 2011 accepted LePage’s $500 million tax cut at an absolute low point for revenues, even though LePage never publicly mentioned a shutdown.

This must stop. A legislative minority shouldn’t be able to dictate budget decisions simply by threatening a shutdown.

Can we do this? Yes, but it will take a thorough rethinking of how the Legislature conducts business. There’s no legal reason biennial budgets require approval by two-thirds; it’s an accident of the calendar.

Before John Martin’s 19-year reign as House speaker, sessions were shorter, and before Gov. Ken Curtis championed a constitutional amendment for annual sessions, lawmakers officially met once every two years. Our system has been broken for a generation, and it’s time we fixed it.

We should begin by re-creating what we’re supposed to have: a citizen Legislature. No one wants professionals for a state of 1.3 million people. Yet our sessions last nearly as long, including this year’s, extending into August, and getting little done.

Sessions should each be four months, ending in April. If we did this, and reduced the period triggering “emergency” legislation from 90 to 60 days, shutdown threats would be effectively eliminated.

That’s not the most important benefit, however. At one time, business leaders, lawyers, union organizers, doctors and teachers served in Augusta. Today, we have a preponderance of retired people and a smattering of young people who haven’t started careers.

Things aren’t to the dire point of New Hampshire, which pays legislators $100 a year, and where the average age is 66, but we’re getting there. It’s been decades since working people could serve and still maintain regular employment.

We have advantages, chiefly the Clean Election Act, which works well for those seeking legislative seats. You don’t need to have wealthy friends to run a credible campaign. Yet as long as sessions drag on and on, with frequent out-of-session responsibilities, this will always be a full-time job paid part-time.

Other adjustments are needed. Rather than “open filing” producing 2,000 bills, many unnecessary, a Committee on Legislation should perform the initial screening that the entire Legislature Council currently does for the second session. To encourage legislators to gain experience before trying to lead, we should abolish terms limits except for House speaker and Senate president.

Finally, we should have annual budgets. The problem with the Curtis amendment was that the first annual session occurred in the second year of a biennium, causing confusion over two budgets, so the one-year budget was dropped. Then Jim Longley was elected governor and annual budgets vanished.

This change is still needed. The “guesstimates” a governor makes a few weeks after being elected provides no real basis for a budget, nor can legislators fill the gaps.

Is all this doable? Of course it is. It’s simply the true design for a contemporary citizen legislature that’s never been carried out, thanks to a mixture of accidents, bad luck, and bad behavior.

A state government that again works for the people may seem a distant vision, but these are sensible, practical steps to get there. Discussion should start with our numerous candidates for governor, and continue with every legislator who claims they’re leadership material.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 32 years. His biography, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]

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