Gov. Paul LePage’s repeated rhetorical flip-flops this week on whether his administration had instituted a state hiring freeze were frustrating and inaccurate. His statement blaming the freeze on raises given to workers at the state’s mental health facilities was cruel.
In an open letter sent to state employees this week, which is also the governor’s weekly radio address, LePage blamed lawmakers for the need to curtail state hiring without his approval. “In a purely political move, the Legislature authorized significant salary increases for employees at the state’s two psychiatric centers,” the letter said. “The money for the increases comes directly from the account that provides wage increases to all state employees based on future labor negotiations. Unfortunately, the Legislature’s politically motivated move diminished that account.”
The governor left out the fact that raises for state law enforcement that he championed, which totaled much more than the mental health worker wage increases, came from the same account. And the governor’s statement entirely ignores the explicit need for a pay hike among employees at the state’s mental health facilities.
Furthermore, LePage’s letter was a continuation of a dispute he initiated with lawmakers this spring over how to fund those pay raises.
In June, LePage threatened to bring the Legislature back into session over four bills, including LD 1645, which provided raises to some workers at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Recovery Center in Augusta and Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor. He disagreed with the Legislature’s funding mechanism for each of the bills, which became law over his vetoes.
The mental health worker raises, which range from $2 to $4 per hour, are estimated to cost $944,379 for the next fiscal year. The wage increases for law enforcement totalled more than $6 million.
Both are to be funded out of the salary plan program, a General Fund account within the Department of Administrative and Financial Services that, as of April, had more than $27 million. During this spring’s legislative session, the LePage administration tapped the fund for $6.7 million to pay for the tax conformity measures championed by the governor, which aligned Maine’s tax code with federal changes. Taking into account the raises for law enforcement, for workers at Riverview and Dorothea Dix, and the bill for tax conformity, the salary plan account would still have a $12 million balance, DAFS Commissioner Richard Rosen told lawmakers this spring.
The account is funded, in part, by money appropriated in the state budget but not spent on salaries for vacant positions.
If the governor wants to justify a state hiring freeze by arguing the salary plan funds are needed for another personnel-related purpose, the removal of $6.5 million from the account to pay for tax conformity — not employee raises — is his argument’s biggest problem.
But the governor’s argument isn’t about logic, it’s about shaming lawmakers and one group of state employees — those charged with caring for Maine residents who need some of the most intensive help.
“The finger pointing by the governor has got to stop,” Rep. Drew Gattine, a Westbrook Democrat who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, told the BDN. “The Legislature has stepped up. Maine taxpayers have stepped up. The workers have stepped up. It’s time for Gov. LePage and Commissioner [Mary] Mayhew to do their jobs and fix these problems.”
Lawmakers agreed pay increases were critical to attracting and retaining personnel needed to fill staff vacancies that were imperiling the safety and operation of Riverview. The hospital lost its federal certification in 2013 for a host of issues, including inadequate staffing. The vacancies also risked impeding the psychiatric center’s ability to comply with a state consent decree for treatment of those with mental illness, warned retired Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, the consent agreement’s overseer.
Since late 2013, the Legislature has approved five emergency funding requests from the administration, totaling $4.3 million, to help improve patients and worker safety at Riverview, including adding positions. The investment has helped, with vacant positions filled and mandated overtime reduced.
Better compensation and working conditions for those who work at Riverview, caring for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, are an important part of the facility’s improvement plan. These workers deserve support from our elected leaders, not blame for a problem that may not even exist.