March 1, 2011

State employees press their case as protests loom

A union demonstration at noon Thursday will follow a rally in support of the governor's proposals.

By MECHELE COOPER Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Patricia Chasse is sick of hearing that state workers should sacrifice.

Chasse, who works for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said state workers have made deep sacrifices to bolster the state budget for the past two years, including 20 unpaid furlough days, salary freezes since January 2009, a 15 percent increase in their health insurance costs, and a hold on merit raises.

"I've worked for the state 18 years and make $19.30 an hour," said Chasse, a provider relations specialist. "I don't think that's a lot for the time I put in. We work very hard for Maine people so they get the services they deserve."

The Maine State Employees Association, the state workers' union, plans to rally at the State House at noon Thursday against wage and benefit changes proposed in Gov. Paul LePage's budget for the two years starting July 1.

The plan aims to lower the state's annual costs by $413 million over the next two years, and reduce its long-term liability for unfunded pension obligations, which is now calculated at $4.4 billion.

A rally in support of LePage's proposal, organized by radio personalities Ray Richardson and Matt Mattingly of Gorham, from the conservative advocacy group Of The People, is planned for 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

"All too often, the only voices heard in Augusta are those that are protesting. We wanted our governor and our Legislators to know that we support the reforms being proposed and realize how necessary they are for Maine's future," Mattingly said in a release announcing the rally.

Legislative officers are preparing for overflow crowds this week during public hearings on the governor's budget.

Mary Anne Turowski, political and legislative director for the Maine State Employees Association, said she is encouraging union members to be vocal. "This is a long way from being over," she said.

Public employees have forgone better private-sector wages in return for good benefits and health insurance, Turowski said.

"Up until recently, I would say people saw stability in state government," Turowski said. "They may not make as much working for state government as they would in the private sector, but the benefit package and health insurance plan were solid. If they stay and retire, it was a modest benefit, but a good one."

She said a 2009 state labor market survey study illustrates the "urban myth" of overpaid public-sector workers. It showed that many state workers are paid less and contribute more for their benefits and retirement plans than employees in the private sector.

The survey was done before the Legislature imposed $34.6 million in pay and benefit cuts in July 2009.

The union said the wage gap has "only increased" in the two years since the survey was done.

LePage addressed the upcoming budget hearings in his weekly radio segment, which aired during the weekend.

The Maine State Employees Association, he said, is "claiming we plan to drive public workers into poverty and decimate the retirement benefits of current and retired members."

He said that next year's pension checks would not go down "a single penny" because of his proposed reforms, that only 12 jobs would be cut, and that workers would actually get pay increases from the elimination of furlough days.

"If we promised the same to most hardworking private sector employees, they would take to the streets in celebration rather than protest," LePage said.

 

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