Maine’s finance chief says freeze on state workers’ pay makes it hard to recruit employees

Posted Feb. 26, 2013, at 6:46 p.m.
Sawin Millett
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Sawin Millett

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s finance chief told the Legislature’s budget-writing committee Tuesday that the continuing lack of merit pay increases for state workers inhibits the state’s ability to fill positions and keep them filled.

Christopher Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said Sawin Millett’s remarks during Tuesday’s Appropriations Committee work session marked the first time since LePage took office that he has heard such sentiments from a member of the administration.

Millett was answering lawmakers’ questions about provisions in LePage’s proposed biennial budget that would reduce the size of the state workforce by 100. Another provision in the budget proposal would continue a four-year freeze on both merit and longevity pay increases.

“It’s getting more and more visible as we work our way through this period of frozen salaries,” said Millett in response to questions from Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston. “The number of qualified applicants and the desire for them to move within state government has been somewhat exacerbated by the lack of merit increases over time. If you’re a valued employee and you’re in a position where you’re doing good work and your salary has been frozen for four years, there’s a tendency on the part of many dedicated employees to do that.”

Millett went on to say that state government has “fallen behind in our ability to send a positive message to employees, driven by inadequate resources and the inability to make that kind of gesture not just at the bargaining table, but in day-to-day decisions. We’re sitting on some very valued employees who haven’t seen a raise in, in some cases, four years.”

Millett told the Bangor Daily News outside the meeting that there are jobs throughout state government that are hard to fill. He cited information technology specialist and tax auditor as two examples. However, he said the fact that people in those professions can earn more in the private sector than in government work is nothing new. It used to be that government benefits packages lured people to state employment, but Millett said that in a time when eroding revenues and tough budget choices are commonplace, even that enticement has been diluted.

Quint, executive director of the union whose contract negotiations with the state have dragged into arbitration, said he was surprised by Millett’s comments.

“That was very significant; I was very surprised,” said Quint. “All we’ve heard from this governor’s administration is that state government is bloated and wasteful. We’ve heard nothing but negatives. I hope the governor will listen to his commissioner.”

Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, a member of the Appropriations Committee, also said Millett’s comments surprised her. Cain has sponsored a bill, which isn’t written yet, to restore merit and longevity pay increases that have been cut under LePage and former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat.

“Commissioner Millett’s responses to Rep. Rotundo was the first time I can remember having that conversation in the past two years,” said Cain. “I would hope this wouldn’t be a partisan issue and would be a priority for everyone.”

According to data provided by Millett, the state has saved nearly $29 million because of the freeze on merit and longevity raises since 2009 and would save another $12.6 million in the next biennium if LePage’s budget is approved without changes.

At the same time the Legislature is considering pay freezes, it is grappling with LePage’s proposal to eliminate 100 state employee positions. That would continue a slow decline in the state workforce, which in 2004 numbered 14,427 employees. In 2014, under LePage’s proposal, there would be about 13,250.

But Millett said more than numbers and figures must be considered when it comes to the state workforce.

“What motivates a lot of people is a calling for public sector work,” said Millett, who has been a state government administrator or legislator in Maine for decades. “I applaud that.”

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