In June 1991, a band of 13 Senate Republicans — just 37% of the members — decided to do what until that moment had seemed unthinkable.

Under the guise of wringing legislation to cut worker’s compensation benefits from majority Democrats, the 13 Republicans, led by firebrand Charlie Webster, decided to shut down state government to force minority rule upon a state long known for relatively consensual politics.

When moderate Republican Gov. John McKernan endorsed the strategy, Webster forced the shutdown, producing three weeks of chaos before Senate Republicans got what they wanted.

All three of those nominally in charge — McKernan, Senate President Charlie Pray, and House Speaker John Martin — soon saw their leadership careers implode. Ever since that day, the Legislature hasn’t been the same.

For 30 years, the prospect of another shutdown has haunted the Appropriations Committee, and everyone else. The cost has been high.

Three times, in 1997, 2005 and again this year, Democrats have enacted an “early budget” by majority, then adjourned the session and reconvened. But it’s a gimmick, not a solution.


It can only produce a budget almost identical to the previous one, without new programs or new ideas. In the midst of a pandemic and resulting extraordinary demands on the public sector, the only thing close to a new state program will come from $1 billion in discretionary funding bequeathed to the Legislature by President Biden and Congress’s slim Democratic majorities.

During 30 years of budget stagnation, Republicans have controlled both houses of the Legislature for just two years. Yet their priorities always rise to the top, in a way that frustrates any moderate, let alone progressive, agenda.

The voters haven’t chosen to elect Republicans, yet it’s a Republican-style budget they get, where taxes and spending only go down, never up.

In 2017, the second time state government shut down, minority House Republicans, led by Ken Fredette, withheld their votes from a budget approved by a majority Republican Senate — even though it repealed an income tax surcharge enacted by voters, and made permanent a regressive sales tax increase. They held out for, and got, reversal of a 1% meals and lodging tax increase that applies solely to discretionary spending.

Fortunately, there’s a simple and elegant way to end this undemocratic system of minority rule — something the Founders warned against back in 1787. I’ve previously proposed shortening sessions so business could be completed by April 1, removing the necessity of two-thirds votes.

But the Legislature has been meeting into June for more than 40 years, and shorter sessions would require major overhauls of legislative rules and practice.


There’s another, better way: Adopt the federal fiscal year of Oct. 1.

In a stroke, lawmakers could meet until June 30, pass a budget by majority, adjourn, and have it take effect 90 days later, meeting the constitutional requirement.

The change is so simple it’s a wonder no one has proposed it before.

Maine adopted its July 1 fiscal year in 1921. Before that, the calendar year was also the fiscal year, but the new date matched the federal fiscal year.

In 1976, the federal year was moved three months later, as part of the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. That landmark legislation combatted President Nixon’s refusal to spend congressionally appropriated funds, provided more time to finish the budget, and also created the then-obscure “budget reconciliation” process, bypassing Senate filibusters.

Alabama and Michigan also moved their fiscal years to Oct. 1, but Maine didn’t. It considered, but rejected, such a bill.


It’s time to bring it back, and adopt it — as a majority can do. This doesn’t involve a constitutional provision, intended or unintended.

There’s the additional advantage of matching the federal fiscal calendar, more important than ever, with continuing huge transfers from federal to state budgets.

Implementing it should be a snap — unlike the Ken Curtis-era attempt to install annual budgets along with the new annual sessions, which foundered amid confusion over carving one year from an existing biennial budget.

Instead, the 2023 biennial budget, adopted by majority, would add three months to the first fiscal year, with monthly spending levels continuing.

This will be denounced by Republicans as partisan overreach, but it’s not. Instead, it uses the same budget principle applied by 49 other states, and Congress: majority rule.

If Republicans, or any future minority, want to participate, they can offer better ideas — something available to any legislator — or win a majority in either House or Senate.

What no minority should ever be allowed to do again is exercise power rightly belonging to the majority. Then, and only then, will the 1991 nightmare finally be put to rest.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter and author since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit or email: [email protected]

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