Partisan fight over LePage’s retirement benefits erupts

Maine Senate Assistant Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.
Maine Senate Assistant Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. Buy Photo
Posted March 25, 2013, at 11:07 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill to revoke the lifetime pension of a governor not elected for a second term caused a partisan argument in committee Monday morning that culminated with a Republican representative saying he’ll “never have respect” for Assistant Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

Jackson acknowledged last week that the bill targets Republican Gov. Paul LePage because, in Jackson’s opinion, LePage targeted state workers and retirees in his pension reform efforts.

“This [bill] to me is absolute arrogance. It’s attacking one person,” said Rep. Jethro Pease, R-Morrill. “It does exactly what I hoped would not happen in here. It absolutely pits Republicans against Democrats. I will never, ever have respect for the person who sponsored this because it is an attack.”

Jackson’s bill, “A Resolution Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine to Limit a Governor’s Pension to Governor’s who have Served Two Full Terms,” was voted ought not to pass by an 11-1 tally Monday morning in the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee. Jackson’s bill sought a statewide referendum to amend the Maine Constitution so that a governor who leaves office after Jan. 1, 2012, or the spouse of a governor who leaves office after that date does not qualify for a retirement allowance based on the governor’s service unless the governor had served at least two full terms as governor.

The bill was co-sponsored by four Senate Democrats, including Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, and Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford.

While some on the committee said the bill was a partisan attack aimed squarely at LePage, others insisted that it is an issue of fairness. Jackson said legislators become eligible for $3,360 a year after 10 years of service and only after they pass age 62. The governor, on the other hand, according to Jackson, earns a lifetime pension of $26,000 a year on his or her first day in office.

Jackson said part of his rationale for the bill was that LePage proposed and then signed into law a biennial budget two years ago that cut retirement benefits for state workers. When he introduced the bill last week, Jackson said he wanted to make the change for the future but worded his bill retroactively so it would apply to LePage.

“At a time when Gov. LePage and others are asking state employees to sacrifice, even at the expense of their own pensions which were promised to them when they signed their contracts, the governor should be held to the same standard,” said Jackson last week.

Outside Monday’s committee hearing, Jackson said he wished he’d had the opportunity to respond to Pease’s comments.

“I can’t get over that personal attack,” said Jackson. “I can’t understand why it’s not appropriate to reach back into a pension that no one else gets.”

Gerzofsky was the only committee member who opposed the ought not to pass motion.

“I think if we’re going to lead, we should lead by example,” said Gerzofsky. “If we’re going to take politics out of this, we ought to start by ourselves. If it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander.”

But Gerzofsky was rebuked by other lawmakers on the committee, including some Democrats. Chief among them was Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, who said holding the governor singularly responsible for hurting state retirees with his biennial budget is not fair because the Legislature also voted in favor of it. She said she did not want to be “a pawn in some kind of political record poking a stick at the chief executive.”

“The governor did not affect state retirees and teachers on his own,” said Hayes. “We also voted on the budget. The governor cannot impact the retirement program without our help and we helped. This is political showmanship. This is a distraction. It does not behoove us. … This to me is trying to be a revisionist historian by suggesting that the governor did something horrible and we didn’t stop him and that’s not true.”

Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, who is co-chairman of the State and Local Government Committee, said she saw Jackson’s bill as a potential solution to an inequity and took issue with statements that votes in favor of LePage’s budget bill meant the people who cast them support cuts that hurt state workers.

“I voted for a complete budget,” she said. “I believe in our leadership and I believe that when the budget is fully vetted there are going to be parts of it that I hold my nose about. … Changing the Constitution is a huge deal, it’s a very big deal, and I would like to find a way to create fairness in our system in a different vehicle.”

In addition to Jackson’s bill, the State and Local Government Committee will hear a bill Monday afternoon introduced by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, titled “An Act to Partially Fund Tax Breaks for the Wealthy by Eliminating Certain Gubernatorial Benefits.”

The bill would repeal the governor’s retirement allowance, eliminates his health plan eligibility and authorizes the state finance commissioner to sell the Blaine House, which is the state-owned governor’s mansion next to the State House, with the proceeds to benefit the General Fund.

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