November 14, 2019
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Baldacci, not LePage, balanced budget on state workers’ backs. Did union leaders forget?

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage tours Oxford Networks' expanded data center in Brunswick on Sept. 17.

In 2009, then-Gov. John Baldacci and the Democratically controlled House and Senate voted to balance the budget on the backs of state employees. Not only did they freeze raises, merit and longevity pay, but they also instituted government shutdown (“furlough”) days. These furlough days were mandatory layoff days for all state employees and reduced the pay of a state worker by 5 percent. In total, they cost the state workforce almost $13 million. The union expressed outrage.

When Gov. Paul LePage came into office in January 2011, five government shutdown days remained. LePage began work on his new budget, promising his employees to restore their lost pay and to never balance a budget by shutting down our government. He has kept that promise.

I, along with former Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett, was charged early on by the governor to look at wage parity and workforce development issues facing state government. Recruitment and retention of qualified professionals is one of the biggest challenges we face in the public sector, largely due to the disparity in salaries and benefits with counterparts in the private sector and the legislative and judicial branches.

We have been working hard on these issues, for our entire workforce, for several years. This is particularly difficult for senior management-level positions in state government that do not typically offer a long-term career path, as is the case for our appointed officials who join state government only for the term of an administration.

There are 117 appointed positions in state government, and the governor directly hired 38 staff in his office, for a total of 155 positions that are “appointees” of this administration. Of that total, 83 of these individuals were state government employees prior to the beginning of this administration. The remaining 72 people came from outside of state government; only half of them (36) benefited from the new vacation accrual policy.

I personally did not benefit from the new vacation accrual policy because I have been in state service for 27 years. I (along with many of the other long-term employees) had much more vacation leave available than my colleagues who left private-sector positions to join this administration. From my perspective, there is no fairness in that. A 30-year professional who leaves lucrative employment to work tirelessly for the people of Maine deserves to have more than 13 days of vacation offered to them at the beginning of employment. I believe they should be able to have their experience quantified, the same as my experience within state government is.

Although the governor initiated the parity and workforce development conversations early on in his administration, the idea to compensate appointees with accrual rates based on prior experience outside of state government was mine. I then vetted the proposal with the internal wage parity group established by Millett, the former finance commissioner, before bringing it to the governor for final approval. The governor tasked me with implementing the new policy, including reviewing the relevant experience levels and computing the additional accrual rates. While the governor can lawfully grant this flexibility for appointees, the law prohibits him from exercising the same flexibility for employees covered by collective bargaining agreements.

I truly believe this is a valuable and legitimate recruitment tool for any chief executive. As a Democrat and career state employee, I commend our governor for taking the beginning steps necessary to address the many workforce development challenges we face.

Joyce Oreskovich is director of the Bureau of Human Resources for Maine state government.

 



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