LePage pledge to end ‘bloated’ state government remains unmet

By Robert Long, BDN Staff
Posted Dec. 07, 2012, at 7:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — State government employed 610 fewer workers during the first half of this year than it did in 2010, the year before Gov. Paul LePage took office after a campaign that made reducing the size of state government its centerpiece.

As with his efforts to cut Maine’s public assistance rolls, LePage has found it more difficult as a governor than as a candidate to convert his advocacy for limited government into action. The reduction in state jobs represents a 2.5 percent decline in the state workforce since the first half of 2010, the last year of Democrat John Baldacci’s governorship.

The total number of state employees dropped from 24,113 for the first half of 2010 to 23,503, according to Glenn Mills, chief economist for the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research. The state workforce not affiliated with the university or community college system has decreased by 978 employees since 2010, Mills wrote in an email. The number of jobs within the state’s higher education network grew by 368 — rising from 37 percent to 39 percent of the overall state workforce.

Increased enrollments spurred hiring at the state’s community colleges and universities, according to Mills. State employment rolls fluctuate each summer to reflect the hiring of seasonal park staff, interns and transportation project workers, he said.

A Governing By the Numbers analysis of public versus private sector job changes during the recession — between January 2008 and April 2012 — shows that Maine’s state workforce cuts were deeper than in neighboring New Hampshire, but not as severe as in Vermont and Rhode Island. Twenty-eight states cut their workforces during that time period, the report shows.

Maine’s overall staffing reduction corresponds with a $38.9 million decrease from the first half of 2010 to the first half of 2012 in total wages paid by the state. “A decline of $44.1 million in non-education was partially offset by an increase of $5.3 million in education,” Mills wrote. “On an annual basis, total wages declined $80 million for the 12 months through June 2012 compared to calendar year 2010.”

Average wages, which the Department of Labor measures quarterly, also declined from 2010 to 2012, he said.

The 12-month payroll decrease from $1.03 billion to $950 million reflects wages exclusively. Potential savings from retirement contributions, health insurance and other benefits do not factor into the $80 million decrease, Mills said.

Julie Rabinowitz, communications director for the Maine Department of Labor, wrote Thursday in an email that the state achieved savings in each of those areas, but she did not provide a total amount, noting that the savings would be reflected in budgets for each of the fiscal years since the first half of 2010. Factors such as conditions of employment, a 2010 curtailment order issued by Baldacci and benefit changes make an aggregate figure difficult to pin down, she said.

LePage took office Jan. 5, 2011, after campaigning, in large part, on a call to cut the size of state government and make it more accountable. “The taxpayers tired of footing the bill for a bloated establishment in Augusta,” he said during his inaugural address.

The governor’s initial two-year budget proposal, released in February 2011, included a plan to eliminate 80 mostly vacant state jobs. Government reforms, including changes to the state pension system passed as part of the biennial budget in June 2011, triggered other job reductions, according to Rabinowitz.

“Some jobs were not eliminated, but the staff person in that job took the retirement offered as a result, and that, accompanied by the hiring freeze, resulted in a loss of workers,” she said.

Ginette Rivard, president of the Maine State Employees Association, the union that represents state workers, agreed that state pension system changes and related incentives motivated many state employees to retire in 2011.

“That creates a shortage in the workplace and is a drain on experience and institutional memory,” she said.

The merger of the state’s agriculture and conservation departments this year prompted the elimination of some duplicative positions, Rabinowitz said.

A comprehensive list of the jobs eliminated since 2010 is “not readily available and the data would be incomplete,” Rabinowitz said.

Neither Rabinowitz or Rivard could provide hard numbers that link state job cuts and contracted services. Rivard, the state employees union president, cited intensive case management services for the Department of Health and Human Services as one example of work formerly done by state workers that’s now contracted to an outside entity. She said the Maine Department of Transportation is considering privatizing vehicle maintenance “because they can’t keep enough mechanics to service the vehicles, particularly in the winter months.”

“There is no particular tracking in the accounting system of contracted ‘workers.’ Our reports only generate expenditures for service contracts by various categories of service but there would be no relationship to the number of workers that is supporting,” Rabinowitz wrote.

A conservative group that chastised LePage in February 2011 for not including deeper state workforce cuts in his first budget proposal praised the downsizing, but said it didn’t go far enough.

“While no one wants to lose their job in these tough economic times, the decline in the number of state government workers is a necessary step in order to right-size the workforce,” Scott Moody, president of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, wrote in an email Wednesday.

In February 2011, the conservative MHPC released a report titled “Right-sizing Maine State Government’s Workforce,” which advocated for reducing state government’s workforce from 5.51 to the national average of 4.78 state workers for every 100 people employed in the private sector. An overview of the report, written by Moody, asserted that Maine could save almost $186 million annually by eliminating 3,880 state government jobs to get to the national average.

“The decline in the state workforce of 610 people since 2010 is a good down payment toward right-sizing the state workforce,” Moody wrote. “However, more needs to be done especially as the average Mainer struggles to put food on the table or heating oil in the tank.”

Rivard said the reduced state workforce negatively affects the delivery of state services. “When you have that many fewer people doing the work, it results in increased workloads,” she said.

Upheaval within the state workforce also poses recruitment and retention problems, according to Rivard. “People come in and get trained, then leave for better paying jobs in the private sector,” she said. “In essence, state government is subsidizing training for the private sector. A person who has done the job can complete a task much faster than someone who’s learning. There’s a cost to taxpayers in terms of efficiency.”

The workforce reductions reflect LePage’s commitment “to shrinking the size of government, but doing so in a thoughtful manner that protects Maine’s most vulnerable and our essential services,” Rabinowitz said.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/12/07/news/lepage-pledge-to-end-bloated-state-government-remains-unmet/ printed on September 23, 2014