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State Union Leaders: Maine Governor Should Share the Sacrifice
03/14/2011   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

State union leaders are calling on the LePage administration to include itself in shouldering a larger share of the costs for the state pension system. Gov. Paul LePage's $26,600 a year pension is exempted in the administration's calculations for balancing the $6.1 billion dollar two-year state budget. But LePage wants state employees and Maine's teachers to increase their pension contributions by 2 percent, at a time when the administration is freezing cost-of-living increases for the next three years.

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When Gov. Paul LePage took the unusual step of personally speaking to the Legislature's Appropriations Committee about his proposed changes to the state pension system, he emphasized the need for shared sacrifice.

"Our fix is not easy, but it is honest. We ask for sacrifices from current state workers and teachers in the form of higher contributions and later retirement ages," LePage said.

But not everyone who receives the benefit of a state pension will share that sacrifice. Although LePage wants teachers and state workers to increase their pension contributions from 7.65 percent to 9.65 percent, he does not currently face the same requirement.

"I don't even think we actually even had a conversation with the governor about it," says the governor's finance chief Sawin Millett. "I intend to have that conversation, given the stories that have occurred over the weekend."

Millett possesses a sixth sense for politics that rivals his reputation as one of the leading experts on the state budget. After a weekend newspaper column by Maine People's Alliance spokesman Mike Tipping pointed out that LePage was exempted from making the same financial sacrfice that he was asking of state workers and teachers, Millett says the governor may reconsider the point.

"I won't speak for where he would be on it, but I suspect that he's not aloof from, or opposed to, considering that idea for himself," Millett says. "Obviously previous governors have done things on their own initiative--you will recall In the early 90s when we had some statutory reductions in salary for upper income people, the governor at that time agreed to have the same treatment apply to him, even though he had to do it as a separate statutory proposal."

Millett says the governor is not alone in escaping the additional 2 percent salary hike to offset the state budget. Members of the Legislature who are eligible for benefits after 10 years in office, along with members of the judiciary, are also exempt.

Millett said the exemption reflects a measure of respect for the separation of powers among the three governmental branches. "I think there's a tradition of not attempting to have the executive branch propose changes that directly impact the other two branches, so we've been always sensitive to not applying a unique proposal to legislators or judges," Millett says. "So there's some history there."

"I guess we keep waiting to see the shared sacrifice," says Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay. "The shared sacrifice is only falling on public employees, and even public employees, I guess, in positions of power are not sharing in the sacrifice."

Galgay says it's discouraging to think that LePage will be eligible for a $26,600 a year salary for the rest of his life after serving only four years on the job, when it would take a teacher more than 25 years to match those benefit levels.

Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, says LePage needs to lead by example on the financial issues that affect thousands of workers.

"Well I would say that it doesn't set a good example for state employees," Quint says. "In the big scheme of things we're not talking a lot of money here, but if we're truly talking shared sacrifice and shared responsibilty, then whether you're a member of the Maine State Employees Association, or you're in an appointed position or you're the governor, if there are truly going to be shared sacrifices, then it should be truly shared sacrifice across the board."

Democratic and Republican legislative leaders say that the governor's budget proposal is still in the early stages of the process and that it is possible that they would ask members to adopt any new pension contribution proposals that are imposed on state workers and teachers.


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