If I were still in the classroom, I’d give the Appropriations Committee a grade of “incomplete” on the state budget. I’d send them back to their desks to revise their work so they don’t make it harder for teachers, state troopers and other public employees to make ends meet in their retirement years. But the committee has turned in its report, which includes a dangerous and permanent cap on retiree pension incomes, and now we need the full Legislature to get involved and finish the job right.
We can all agree that the task before the Appropriations Committee was enormous. Gov. Paul LePage’s original budget included a host of draconian measures that would have caused real harm to families and local communities. Rather than creating unity and economic growth, LePage’s proposals seemed more intent on creating conflict and division. It was a budget that was out-of-step with Maine people and the community values we all share.
One of the most divisive elements in the LePage budget was a sharp cut to the retirement plans of Maine teachers, nurses, state troopers, snow plow drivers and other public employees, just so he could hand out big tax breaks to the wealthy. Instead of working to create jobs, he just created more conflict, all the while putting the retirement security of many hardworking Maine citizens in jeopardy. This defies common sense.
What many people don’t realize is that teachers, state troopers and other public workers don’t get Social Security benefits. Maine law doesn’t allow it. Our pensions are modest and they are what we rely on for our retirement years. Any monkey-wrenching with the Maine Public Employees Retirement System is like undermining the Social Security System for all other workers — it cuts to the core of our future financial security.
In response to the governor’s budget, teachers and state workers offered a fair compromise that would have been painful but not completely debilitating. We agreed to accept a cap on our cost-of-living increases (COLAs) and a short-term COLA freeze. But the Appropriations Committee also chose to create a permanent cap on pensions — limiting COLAs to the first $20,000 of pension income. And while they also established a fund to help limit the detrimental effects of the COLA freeze, this fund will do nothing to repair the pension income cap and the harm it will cause for generations to come. The reality is, this permanent change in pensions will make it very difficult for retirees to keep up with ordinary increases in the cost of living. That’s something that people with Social Security don’t have to worry about. It breaks a solemn promise and it’s not fair.
The Appropriations Committee did do a very good job with the rest of the budget to minimize much of the harm the governor’s proposals would have caused. But they left the job undone when they left half of Maine’s retired teachers, nurses, state troopers and other state workers out in the cold.
Keep in mind, these are the same people who have spent their careers making Maine a better place for all of us to live, work and raise our families. What message does this send to these hardworking men and women, and perhaps more importantly to the next generation of teachers, nurses and state troopers? Why would we want to undermine the foundation of our education and public safety systems? It simply makes no sense.
This is about our future. We all want good schools, safe and friendly communities and public safety professionals who are there when we need them. We need the Maine Legislature to take a hard look at the pension plan and find a more reasonable solution that works for everyone.
Jackie Roach is a retired school teacher from Oakland. She taught in the Unorganized Territory.