March 12, 2010

State workers bracing for changes

SUSAN M

— By . COVER

Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — State workers could feel the impact of Gov. John Baldacci's $6.1 billion two-year budget in three ways: More would be laid off; others would be given incentive money to retire; and others would be required to pay a portion of their health insurance.

Baldacci unveiled the spending plan Friday.

''I know that state employees are already being asked to shoulder a lot of the impacts that constrain spending,'' Baldacci said. ''But we must do more.''

The budget proposes to eliminate 219 state jobs, 139 of which are filled.

Also, the highway budget, which is a separate document, proposes to eliminate 137 positions in three departments, which would mean 52 layoffs.

If this budget and a supplemental plan that proposes to eliminate 94 positions are approved as written, the number of state employees would be at the lowest level since at least 1983, according to the governor's office.

''It's a lot of people,'' said Tim Belcher, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association. ''As we speak, people are hearing in their offices their jobs are going to be eliminated July 1.''

Baldacci is proposing a retirement-incentive program designed to save the state $7.2 million: A $10,000 lump-sum payment would be made to employees who are otherwise eligible to retire, effective July 1, according to documents distributed at the news conference.

The application period for the incentive is July 1 to Aug. 15; the retirement date would be Aug. 31.

The health-insurance component would require state employees making more than $50,000 a year to contribute to the cost of their coverage.

Under the proposal, employees with salaries of $50,000 to $89,999 will be required to contribute 5 percent of the cost of their coverage, and those earning $90,000 or more will have to contribute 10 percent of the cost.

State employees already pay into the system to cover dependents, and those amounts will not change, according to the union.

The state expects to save about $1 million a year.

Belcher said a ''couple thousand'' of the 10,000 state workers make more than $50,000 a year.

''We have a principled disagreement with any cost-shifting of health insurance,'' he said.

Belcher said this would give an incentive to healthy people to discontinue coverage, which would drive up the cost for others. And, he said, by starting with higher-wage earners, it opens the door to expanding the requirement to all state workers.

Two legislators, both members of the Appropriations Committee, gave their initial support to the health-insurance proposal.

Rep. Pat Flood, R-Winthrop, proposed something similar in previous years. His plan also would have required legislators to contribute to the cost of their health care.

''I'm glad to see the executive looking at some difficult, but possibly necessary, kinds of changes,'' he said.

From the other side of the aisle, Rep. Lisa Miller, D-Somerville, said she thinks the governor is taking the right approach.

''I actually had thought it was probably the fairest way to do it some time ago,'' she said.

''The low-income workers in the state can maintain health insurance. I think it's appropriate.''

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