PORTLAND – I write in response to Tony Payne’s column of August 29 (“Legislators should keep their distance”).

The column calls into question the ethics of Maine’s part-time Legislature by implying that providing legislators with health insurance and pension benefits available to all other state employees creates a conflict of interest for their effectively dealing with the challenges facing Maine’s retirement system.

Payne’s conclusion is unfounded because his facts are inaccurate, but more on that later.

Who am I to talk about this issue? I was formerly a three-term member of the Maine House of Representatives who was one of only a handful of Democratic candidates endorsed by Payne’s group, Alliance for Maine’s Future, during the 2006 election.

As a junior member of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, I worked with the Baldacci administration to make Maine a leader in addressing unfunded public retiree liabilities. Later, as chairman of that committee, I angered many of my traditional allies in the public employee unions by blocking attempts to expand retiree benefits without fully funding them.

CONCERN ABOUT FACTS

I feel compelled to respond to Payne’s column because “facts are stubborn things,” which is perhaps why he chose to ignore and distort them.

First, Payne implies that legislators slide into cushy, high-paying jobs in state government after leaving the Legislature in order to increase their legislative pensions. This assertion is incorrect — legislative pensions are computed independently of other state pensions.

A legislative pension is based solely on one’s legislative salary and does not increase if a legislator later serves as a bureaucrat. The implication that legislators are using political patronage to enhance their legislative pensions, therefore, is unfounded.

Second, Payne’s column made me wonder whether I was wholly uninformed about a potential pension windfall I might receive upon retirement due to my past legislative service, so I did some research.

Unfortunately for both Payne and for me, he failed to accurately describe how legislative pensions are calculated. While the pension amount is calculated based on the average of a legislator’s highest three years of salary, what he failed to mention was the remainder of the calculation.

The average salary amount is then divided by 50 and multiplied by the number of years of legislative service. For me, that means about $1,500. Per week? Nope. Per month? Nope. Per year — hardly the type of incentive that is likely to “cloud (legislators’) objectivity when it comes to establishing benefits.”

MORE TRANSPARENCY

Make no mistake — the issues of unfunded retiree liabilities and public pension reform are very serious and looming ones for Maine. Because Payne failed to accurately describe the problem, however, his proposed solutions miss the mark. Maine needs to have an adult conversation about these issues, but only once everyone is informed of the relevant facts.

As a necessary first step, state government must become more transparent by ensuring that information and statistics are publicly accessible. Maine should create a searchable website not only about state employee compensation and benefits, but also about all state contracts and expenditures.

All meetings of state boards and commissions, including the Retirement System, should be broadcast live on the Internet. ensuring that every citizen with a laptop and an internet connection has accurate information at their fingertips, we can have a real and informed debate about these and other pressing problems facing our state.