AUGUSTA, Maine — The budget memo that leaked from the LePage administration last week was big news for one key reason: A goal of cutting nearly a fifth of the state government’s workforce.
Gov. Paul LePage also wants to reduce income tax rates and pass a smaller budget than the current two-year document. None of those planks are surprising coming from LePage — he has touted thinning Maine’s bureaucracy and barnstormed to sell his tax cut proposals.
The details of the Republican governor’s state employee plan have been hazy: The memo says that LePage wants to trim the state’s workforce to 9,500 employees.
The administration clarified — and perhaps backpedaled — on it Thursday, saying that it would assess going forward 2,400 “limited-period employees,” who may be funded by a mix of state money and other sources and whose positions have an effective end.
But the biggest state employees union said cutting a large number of those positions would “cripple” state government, and data suggest that those jobs aren’t as short term as they seem.
Some employees classified as “limited period” have been working for the state since the 1960s, and many of those positions intersect with some of the governor’s top goals in government, including welfare fraud investigators.
LePage can expect opposition from his usual critics — Democrats and public sector unions — but he might also have to fend off criticism from Republican legislative candidates and others concerned that his philosophical commitment to small government will hamstring efforts to reform Maine’s welfare system, help unemployed workers find jobs or provide services their constituents have come to expect.
LePage has contradicted the difficult math of his budget goal, but his administration is signaling that proposed cuts won’t be wholesale.
The memo says that LePage wants to reduce the state’s workforce to 9,500 employees. But he has contradicted the math on exactly how that would be done. At a Wednesday town hall meeting in South Paris, LePage said the positions that he wants to eliminate are “all vacant.”
But there are 13,286 executive branch positions authorized now, with an employee count of 11,808, according to David Heidrich, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services. That means there are 1,478 vacant spots. Getting down to 9,500 would mean 2,308 layoffs at that level.
Asked for clarification on Thursday, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said that there are roughly 2,400 limited-period positions in state government and the administration will be “assessing and evaluating the value of these positions as we move forward.”
That doesn’t suggest wholesale cuts quite like the memo does. In a Facebook post, Bennett chided “ union bosses who will attempt to ensue panic on state employees.”
But the limited-period positions are a major part of state government, and cutting that many at once could deeply affect Maine’s bureaucracy — including a LePage pet cause.
Heidrich didn’t provide more detail on the limited-period positions when asked Friday.
But Mary Anne Turowski, the Maine State Employees’ Association’s director of politics and legislation, said her union represents nearly 2,200 of them and that the positions are typically funded with money from a mix of state, federal or other sources. Some are fully funded by the federal government.
Data provided by the union show that certain departments are dominated by these types of workers, and while their positions have end dates, they’ve been renewed regularly, in some cases for decades.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has more than 1,000 limited-period employees. The Department of Labor has more than 400. Two employees were hired in 1968 and five were hired this month.
It also includes 15 fraud investigators in the Department of Health and Human Services. Cracking down on welfare fraud has been one of LePage’s top goals, and he has squabbled on the issue with Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, the Democrat whose office prosecutes those cases.
“You could” theoretically cut the positions in one budget, Turowski said, “but you would cripple government.”
These changes would face stiff resistance, and the Legislature’s final budget will look different than LePage’s proposal.
Making this budget a reality will likely be difficult for LePage. It would be helped by strong legislative gains for Republicans, but they must both hold and gain seats in heavily Democratic areas to win a majority in either chamber this year. And Republican legislative leaders, especially in the Senate, clashed with LePage during deliberations that resulted in the current two-year budget, so it’s not a given that GOP legislative majorities will give the governor free rein to cut as he pleases.
Even if the next Legislature aligns more closely with LePage, budgets need two-thirds support in both chambers to pass. LePage has vetoed budgets in 2013 and 2015 after lawmakers changed his proposals, but legislators overrode him both times.
Changing the face of state government in one fell swoop probably won’t fly with some on both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, an Appropriations Committee member with a key constituency of state workers, said the idea “suggests a bloated workforce that I personally have not seen,” but more details are needed to evaluate the plan.
“What programs would he be suggesting be significantly cut back or eliminated?” Katz said. “Because that’s what would happen with an elimination of that magnitude.”
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the term-limited budget committee co-chairwoman, called the proposal “reckless” and said it’s an example that “elections have consequences.”
“Just because they’re limited [positions] doesn’t mean they aren’t important and that’s why you don’t just cut things for the sake of cutting,” she said.