Maine’s Low Wages

Posted Dec. 21, 2010, at 7:24 p.m.

Last week, Gov.-elect Paul LePage complained that low pay was making it difficult for him to find people to serve as commissioners under his administration. The same day, the U.S. Census Bureau released information showing that Maine has the lowest wages in New England.

Gov.-elect LePage certainly isn’t the first governor to lament that the pay for commissioners — which by state law is limited to less than $110,000 a year for most — is a hurdle to hiring the best people. He could be the first to use this observation as a rallying cry to raise wages for average working Mainers as well.

“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,” Mr. LePage said. This 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,” he added.

The incoming governor said candidates for commissioners of the Department of Health and Human Services and Education Departments — which account for 80 percent of state funding — turned down the job because they could not afford the cut in pay. Mr. 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.

Mr. LePage has a point about low salaries, but it is odd that one of his top advisers, Tarren Bragdon, heads an organization that touts a list of highly paid state employees. The Maine Heritage Policy Center has created a database that lists state employees by name and ranks them based on their compensation.

It defies logic to believe that the state’s commissioners are underpaid, but all other state employees are overpaid.

Yet Senate President Kevin Raye last week was quick to say that while the state’s top government executives are underpaid, other government workers are not.

The problem extends beyond commissioners. Just as Maine’s commissioners are low-paid compared to their peers in other New England states, so is the average Maine worker.

The median household income in Maine was $46,541 during the latter half of the decade, the lowest in New England, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau released last week. That is roughly $4,700 less than Vermonters, who ranked just above Maine among New England states, and $21,180 less than the region’s highest earners, those living in Connecticut.

If Mr. LePage is to “put people before politics,” as he often said on the campaign trail, he’ll have to worry about these numbers as much as the salaries of his commissioners.

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