March 19, 2019
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State employee pay raises shouldn’t be a popularity contest

BDN file | BDN
BDN file | BDN
Maine Department of Transportation plow truck driver Brian Austin cleans his plow truck windows and mirrors before a snow storm in February 2013.

Lawmakers are considering proposals to give pay raises to several groups of state employees, including law enforcement officers and workers at the Riverview Psychiatric Recovery Center. Strong arguments were made in favor of the pay increases, but having lawmakers pick which employees are worthy of raises isn’t the best way to determine whether state pay and benefits are adequate to attract and retain state employees.

Lawmakers should amend one of the pay raise bills to create a panel to review state employee compensation and assess its impact on state government job vacancies, recruitment and retention. Comparisons to the private sector and other states should be part of this review. If they determine higher pay and/or benefits are needed, the group would develop a plan to implement — and pay for — the increases.

The arguments for raising wages for state police, wardens and other law enforcement personnel are familiar: Without better pay, the state can’t attract and retain enough people to fill openings. Some community police departments pay higher salaries than the Maine State Police. One young trooper told lawmakers earlier this week he was leaving the force to work for the Department of Homeland Security, where he will earn more money to support his family.

LD 1653, sponsored by Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, would raise salaries by 12 percent to 18 percent for the Maine State Police, Marine Patrol and Warden Service.

The situation is especially dire at Riverview, where the retired Supreme Court justice who oversees the state’s compliance with a decades-old mental health system decree warned in February that job vacancies there threatened the state’s ability to comply.

As part of the solution, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, proposes, in LD 1645, raises of $2 to $4 per hour for direct care workers at Riverview and the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor.

While both bills received strong support in public hearings, it is worth remembering Maine’s low government pay didn’t happen by accident.

A freeze on merit and longevity pay increases for state employees began July 1, 2009, under former Gov. John Baldacci and continued under Gov. Paul LePage. In 2013, LePage’s then-finance commissioner, Sawin Millett, warned a lack of raises hurt the state’s ability to recruit and retained qualified workers.

“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,” he told the Appropriations Committee in 2013. The Legislature subsequently lifted the freeze, and it had to override a veto from LePage to do it.

The governor himself raised similar complaints about high-level state employees. In fact, he raised the pay and increased vacation time for numerous cabinet appointees and executive branch staff.

Instead of the piecemeal approach LePage and lawmakers are using, there should be a more comprehensive review of state salaries and benefits to determine whether they should be adjusted.

During testimony on the law enforcement raises, Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, brought up the prospect of regionally adjusted wages for state positions. Because housing costs make up a significant share of a family’s costs, Mills rightly suggested the state consider adjusting salaries based on where a job is located. Employees in more costly urban areas, he said, need higher salaries to cover living expenses than their counterparts in rural areas.

Mills told lawmakers the Turnpike Authority was able to pay its maintenance workers $18 per hour to compete with salaries in southern Maine. The Department of Transportation, on the other hand, paid only $12 per hour and was forced to close maintenance garages and contract out work in southern Maine.

Regional and other types of adjustments should be part of a state salary review.

A thorough review of state compensation and its consequences on all levels of state employment is overdue. That would be a better way to decide what salaries and benefits should be adjusted than a legislative popularity contest.

 



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