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April 25, 2013

All Mainers shortchanged by state's hiring, salary freezes

Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, represents Vassalbo

One way or another, we are all Maine taxpayers, whether we're buying a roll of paper towels or filing our returns every April. Those tax dollars pay the salaries of our bridge inspectors, forest rangers, state troopers, game wardens, child protective service workers, arson investigators, the people who provide us with courts where we seek justice and even the people who make sure that our food and water are safe.

These important services and countless others must be delivered well and delivered consistently. Our state employees work very hard, ensuring that we meet the basic ground rules and expectations we set for ourselves about the way we want Maine to work.

For years, state employees have done their jobs while earning lower average hourly wages than their counterparts in the private sector. When the Great Recession hit, both the public and the private sectors suffered heavy job losses. Many departments put hiring freezes into place that remain in place to this day. Many employees had their salaries frozen, even as the cost of living continued to rise.

What's more, every single state employee lost the ability to earn merit pay for a job well done.

Naturally, these cutbacks haven't been good for individual state employees, but the negative effects reach much further than that. It is now more difficult than ever for Maine to recruit and retain qualified public workers. It turns out that people who applied for public-sector jobs were willing to overlook the lower salary because of the basic and reliable benefits and the chance to earn more through merit pay.

With that now gone, applicant pools are shrinking and some public employees are leaving for greener pastures, taking their experience and institutional memory with them. Those who remain are fighting off lower morale, even as they work longer hours to offset the many positions left unfilled. The cost of that overtime pay has been adding up, which means we end up paying more to support something that is less effective. It doesn't make sense.

These cutbacks have also been harmful to Maine's economy, particularly in Kennebec County, where so many of our local businesses' customers are state employees. Over the last four years, state employees from Kennebec County have lost $4.1 million in wages -- wages that likely would have been spent immediately at local businesses, which would have given the economy a lift and put more money in the pockets of the middle class.

The experiment helping balance the state budget by cutting state employee benefits and salaries has failed. It's clear that these cuts make government less effective and create an unnecessary drag on the economy.

It's time to end the hiring freeze and restore merit pay. Both items should be included in the state budget.

Some people will say that we can't afford to take these steps. If we want the institutions and services that we're all paying for to be effective, however, we can't afford not to do it. It is wrong and foolish for the state to shortchange Mainers of the important public services they deserve.

Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, represents Vassalboro, Windsor and part of Augusta in the Maine House of Representatives.





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