Which candidate will address state pay, benefits?

Posted May 14, 2010, at 8:26 p.m.

As the date of the Maine gubernatorial primary election nears, we have yet to hear a candidate offer constructive ideas on downsizing state employees’ salary and benefits expenses.

We are repeatedly told that these are “uncontrollable” costs. This is not true; of course they are controllable, if the will to do so is present.

My vote on June 8, and again in November, will go to the candidate, regardless of party affiliation, who promises to bring the bloated state bureaucracy back to a reasonable staffing and cost level.

The candidate earning my vote will pledge to adjust downward both the staffing level and the fringe benefits enjoyed by state employees to the point where the total financial package no longer exceeds the benefits enjoyed by the average Maine taxpayer.

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For example, few Maine-based private employers offer a company-maintained retirement plan, beyond a 401-type. Most private companies require larger health insurance contributions from their staff than what the state requires. Other luxury benefits that are enjoyed by state employees, such as extended vacation days, retirement eligibility before age 65 and lucrative employee tuition reimbursements, have long since been eliminated in Maine private industry, if they ever existed at all.

In the interest of fairness to those working outside the state payroll, I offer the following, reasonable suggestions to whoever will be our next governor on cutting our state budget.

Reduce the state work force by at least 10 percent by attrition. No loss of production should result through good management practices. This slight reduction in staff happens often in private industry.

End the overly generous State Retirement System, which mandates that the state must contribute up to an additional 17 percent of salaries to employees’ retirement accounts. To accomplish this fairly, we need to move all state employees to a 401-type retirement plan, at no expense to the state. The state will have to begin contributing to the Social Security system at a state cost of about 7 percent per employee, rather than the 17 percent contribution now made to the State Retirement System. The net savings will be 10 percent of wages. The combination of Social Security coverage and benefits from a 401-type plan should provide an adequate retirement to our state workers.

Freeze all state employees’ base salaries for as long as it takes until the salaries are equal to those in Maine private industry, which they now far exceed.

Cut back the overly generous vacation/sick pay/personal leave/holiday paid time off benefit to a level equal to those in Maine private industry.

Allow state employees to not join or contribute to the unions, if they do not wish to be so represented. This will save employees at least $600 a year, which they can then use to bolster the new 401 accounts.

The above actions, if implemented, will save well over $100 million every year. No state services will need to be cut, and the public will notice no change in their dealings with the state agencies.

Our current governor and various past governors have long been too accepting of concessions to and sweetheart deals with the state employee unions. The taxpaying public has been totally ignored, causing what is now an unsustainable drain on the state treasury. We cannot expect the Maine taxpayer to continually pay more fees and taxes to support these unnecessary, out-of-control state employee costs.

Rather than repeatedly agreeing to never-ending benefit demands from the various state employees’ unions, our next governor should always be mindful of the great numbers of Maine residents who do not work for the state. Those folks go to work every day in private industry and pay their state taxes, while assuming their contributions are being used sensibly.

Who among the candidates in either party will have the confidence to speak up before primary day and pledge to take the necessary and politically difficult actions needed to bring state employee costs in line if elected governor?

I won’t be holding my breath that any of the candidates will step forward. However, I must remain hopeful that at least one of them will have the courage to govern equitably for all the residents of Maine, not just those reporting to work in Augusta’s State House.

Richard Kivel of Brooks is a retired computer software engineer and computer trainer.

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