Go ahead, read it top to bottom. Nowhere in the State of Maine’s collective bargaining agreement with our dedicated state troopers will you find any mention of food stamps, MaineCare or feeding one’s family with fresh roadkill.
Yet there Maine State Trooper Jon Brown of St. Albans stood before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Monday, explaining to slack-jawed lawmakers what it’s like to survive on what the state pays him these days.
“Over the last couple of years my family has been the recipient of food stamps and we receive medical care which is paid for by MaineCare,” said Brown, a husband and father of six. “I am not proud of this, but it has been necessary to support my family.”
It gets worse.
Brown went on to tell the committee that he hunts to put meat on the table and that “I do not hesitate to collect a deer carcass from the roadway … to provide for my family.”
Brown spent his day off in Augusta to plead for passage of L.D. 1639, a bill that shouldn’t have to exist in the first place. Its simple intent: put back the merit and longevity pay increases that the state negotiated not just with its troopers, but with an array of other state employees who effectively have been cheated out of what’s rightfully theirs for four of the last five years.
“State employees are what make the state go,” said Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, the bill’s sponsor, in an interview Tuesday. “And if you negotiate a deal, you honor the deal.”
The deal is simple: Under its contracts with various units of the Maine State Employees Association, the state is supposed to provide merit and longevity pay increases at intervals specified in each contract. State budget shortfalls, however, prompted the Legislature to freeze those increases, first in fiscal year 2010, then in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Lawmakers managed to shoehorn the raises in for the fiscal year that ends this June 30, but nixed them once again for next year – at least until Saviello got an earful from a group of state troopers last summer and decided enough was enough.
“It’s crazy,” Saviello said, citing not only the unfairness of it all, but also the inevitable loss of “really good people” who thought they might make a career out of public service but now find themselves stuck year after year at what are essentially entry-level wages. (The starting pay for a Maine state trooper is just under $37,000 a year.)
Trooper Brown, a veteran of the Marine Corps, told the legislators that he’s no spendthrift. (According to the latest available figures from the state-run website Maine Open Checkbook, Brown made $37,042 in regular wages in 2012).
“I do not have a vehicle payment. I do not have Internet at my home or pay for television,” he said. “I do not have a snowmobile or ATV payment. We do not live a frivolous lifestyle. We live a life of service to our community.”
At the same time, Brown said, “When I was recruited (to join the state police) I was not promised the budget would be balanced on my back. I was not promised that my family would get the opportunity to eat road kill or collect public assistance.”
Ditto for fellow Trooper Elgin Physic of Lewiston, another military veteran, who joined the Maine State Police in 2008 fully expecting that the resulting drop in income would be only temporary as he climbed the state’s salary ladder.
“Unfortunately, the state froze my wages before I received my one-year step,” said Physic in his testimony to the committee. “We have spent all of our original savings (about $8,000) and taken out over $20,000 in loans to be able to feed our children.”
What’s more, Physic testified, he’s sold his wife’s engagement ring, his military souvenirs and other personal items, and has taken extra jobs in an effort to stay afloat.
“But even with these measures to increase our income, my children woke up in a cold house twice this week because we could not afford to put in enough oil ahead of time,” Physic said, noting that at times he’s held off on paying the mortgage just to keep food on the table.
As bad as the newer state troopers have it, other state employees have it even worse.
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley told the committee that an entry-level assistant court clerk – a position that accounts for 35 percent of the judicial system’s employees who aren’t judges – makes less than $24,500 a year.
It thus should come as no surprise that many of those 150 individuals are no sooner trained than they’re out the door to higher-paying jobs. According to Saufley, the system’s turnover rate over the last three years was 39 percent among administrative employees and 46 percent among professional workers.
“I am told that in exit interviews, 34 percent of departing employees stated simply they were leaving court employment for a higher-paying job,” Saufley told the committee.
Passage of L.D. 1639 would cost about $6 million in the next fiscal year. (Nobody’s even contemplating retroactive raises to cover all those other years the state workers went without.)
As one committee member, Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, put it Tuesday, “This is not too much to ask … they’re not asking for anything extra. They’re just asking for what was in their contract.”
Beyond that partial justice, the bill lays bare a couple of toxic myths aired for too long by the fear mongers on the far right:
Some of those “overpaid” and “under-worked” state employees, lo and behold, need food stamps and MaineCare just to get by.
And that oft-heard mantra that “welfare” in any form is for “slackers” who choose the “cycle of dependence” over an honest day’s work?
Tell that to Trooper Jon Brown the next time he hoists a dead deer into his trunk.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:firstname.lastname@example.org