Conservative think tank calls for 3,900 state worker cuts

Posted Feb. 23, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 23, 2011, at 11:22 p.m.

AUGUSTA — A conservative think tank that has had Gov. Paul LePage’s attention on budget matters proposed Wednesday that the Legislature slash 3,880 state employees in order to “right-size” Maine’s publicly funded work force to the national average.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center gathered reporters at the State House to release a report called “Right-Sizing Maine’s State Government Workforce.” What started as a discussion about the center’s desire to downsize state government shifted to the issue of whether LePage’s current budget proposal is conservative enough for the politically hard-right policy center and its supporters.

“The governor’s budget is much more moderate in scope than we would have liked to see,” said Tarren Bragdon, the MHPC’s chief executive officer, in response to questions from reporters. “The governor certainly could have gone — and we think needs to go — further in this budget than he has right now. The facts show that Maine’s government employment is much too high, and if we’re going to have a government we can afford long-term, we need to deal with this problem.”

The findings of the report are based on a state-by-state ratio of state government jobs vs. private-sector jobs. According to that formula, Maine has 5.51 government employees for every 100 workers in the private sector, ranking the state 21st overall. The national average, according to the report, is 4.74 state government employ-ees per 100 private employees.

Scott Moody, the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s chief economist, estimated that cutting 3,880 jobs could save the state more than $185 million per year.

“Since the national average represents and amalgam of 50 states, one can reasonably assume that being above the national average indicates inefficiencies in the government work force,” Moody said. “Maine’s employment ratio has steadily increased this decade thanks to new state hiring and a lost decade of private-sector job growth. It is unfortunate that Governor LePage’s recent budget proposal only eliminates 81 positions, of which only 12 will involve layoffs. Clearly there is room to do a lot more.”

Bruce Hodsdon, president of the MSEA-SEIU, which represents approximately 15,000 state employees, said after the news conference that the policy center’s report skews the numbers by including part-time and higher education employees and recklessly uses a broad brush to paint what is a detail-oriented picture.

“I don’t know where they got their numbers from,” Hodsdon said. “A lot of the jobs they’re talking about are federally funded. Leaving those jobs out of the discussion would certainly lower the ratio.”

According to the policy center’s report, every New England state except Vermont has a lower public-to-private jobs ratio than Maine’s. The lowest ratio in New England is Massachusetts, which has 4.38 state employees per 100 private jobs. Hawaii and Alaska have the highest ratios in the United States at 15.16 and 10.32 state workers per 100 private jobs, respectively. Illinois is ranked 50th in the nation with 3.13 state employees per 100 private jobs.

Asked whether the formula behind the rankings is precise enough to provide a fair comparison, Moody acknowledged some loopholes in the methodology — such as states which deliver services at the municipal or county level that in Maine are delivered by the state — but he stood by the overall premise of the study.

“When you look at Maine’s local government ratios, there’s really no over-employment problem,” Moody said. “The problem is all centered with the state government work force.”

The study also identifies overstaffing in specific state government agencies, identifying 1,300 excess employees for “highways”; 2,000 excess employees in “public welfare,” mostly Medicaid; and 1,100 excess employees in “noninstructional higher education.”

Hodsdon questioned the motivation behind the policy center’s news conference, which was held one week before lawmakers begin public hearings on LePage’s biennial budget proposal. The governor’s budget would cut 81 state positions, all but a dozen of which are empty. There are another 1,000 state government vacancies, which LePage has ordered remain vacant until the end of 2011. Hodsdon said the policy center’s news conference could be designed to make LePage’s budget look fiscally and politically moderate when, according to Hodsdon, it isn’t.

“We’re really not that out of whack with the rest of New England,” he said. “They said the money saved would be used to reduce taxes. The issue in Maine isn’t taxes, it’s jobs. We need that money to continue forward with the jobs we have.”

Mary Anne Turowsky, the union’s director of politics and legislation, said LePage’s budget proposal hits state workers harder than any budget proposal in Maine’s history, to the tune of $524 million. For comparison, former Gov. John Baldacci’s budget for the current biennium, which was decried by the union for its furlough days and changes to state benefits packages, saved only $34.5 million on the backs of state workers, according to Turowsky.

Bragdon, who served as an adviser in the writing of LePage’s budget, said he was “disappointed” that the governor proposed only 81 staff cuts, but that Tuesday’s press conference merely repeated a refrain the center has been voicing for several years.

LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said Wednesday that LePage’s campaign promise to reduce the size of state government stands, but LePage was unable to identify the cuts and reforms he seeks because of a lack of time. Demeritt said LePage might pursue more spending reductions in supplemental budget proposals either later this legislative session or in the next.

“The governor thinks that across-the-board cuts and mass layoffs done without proper scrutiny is not an effective way to run an organization,” said Demeritt. “Frankly, the governor just hasn’t had time to determine which programs are not providing the value to Maine taxpayers.”

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