LePage losing top Cabinet picks to pay limits

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Posted Dec. 16, 2010, at 10:21 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 03, 2011, at 12:04 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov.-elect Paul LePage says he hopes to have his Cabinet named by the end of the year, but in an interview he acknowledged that state laws limiting how much he can pay those department heads have cost him some of his first choices.

“You try to get as much money as you possibly can for them, and if that is not enough, you have to go to No. 2, 3 and down the list,” he said. He acknowledged that has happened more than once as he has sought to attract the “best and brightest” to serve in his administration.

“I will emphatically say it is adversely affecting our ability to get the best people,” LePage said.

He said one top candidate for commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services turned down the job because he could not afford the cut in pay.  LePage said it is not only the private sector that is paying more than Maine state government, it is other state governments as well as he has searched nationwide to fill Cabinet positions.

“Not everyone can afford to take a 70 percent cut in pay to serve their state,” LePage said. He said he is taking a 70 percent cut from his salary as CEO at Marden’s. The governor’s salary is set in state law at $70,000.

LePage said his first choices for two key commissioner posts, DHHS and Education, turned down his offers. The two departments handle more than 80 percent of state spending.

Commissioners can make more than the governor with salaries set in ranges by law. For example, most commissioners earn between $76,190 and $109,990 a year. The DHHS commissioner has the highest salary range for commissioners with a minimum of $97,323 and a maximum salary of $134,139.

That LePage is having trouble convincing potential commissioners to join his administration is not a surprise to Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry. He said while most state workers are paid well compared with their private-sector counterparts, the top-level executive posts are not.

“He has to — any governor has to — find people to serve because they want to serve the state, not because of the salary they will receive,” he said.

Raye said many private-sector companies pay far more for executives in comparable positions to state department heads. He quickly added that does not mean he supports bringing state executive salaries into line with the private sector.

“Generally the people that are drawn to public service are drawn by ideals other than salary,” he said. “I think there has to be a happy medium.”

House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said she was not surprised LePage was finding it difficult to get some to serve in his Cabinet considering the relatively low salaries. She said other governors have faced similar challenges.

“Pay levels in the state of Maine are always held up to scrutiny and to criticism because the median income in our state is low,” she said. “People have concerns if the people they are paying are making salaries they think are too high.”

Median household income in Maine is $46,419 according to U.S. Census figures.

LePage has announced four Cabinet choices.

They are former Waterville Police Chief John Morris as commissioner of public safety; Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management Commissioner Bill Libby, who agreed to stay on; former state Rep. Sawin Millett as finance commissioner; and former Husson College president Bill Beardsley as conservation commissioner. Three are retired. Libby had announced his planned retirement.

“We are going to have some more commissioners next week, and I still hope to have everybody named by the end of the year,” LePage said.

There are 12 Cabinet-level positions yet to be announced by LePage.

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