Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to offer pay raises as large as 17 percent to some of his top administrators is likely to come up at the bargaining table as his administration negotiates this summer on a new contract with Maine’s largest state employee union.

LePage, a Republican, recently approved raising the salaries of 11 of his 12 Cabinet-level commissioners to roughly $128,000 a year – an increase of 17 percent for most commissioners – as well as pay hikes for 39 other high-level appointees within his administration. The Democrat-controlled Legislature gave LePage the authority to offer the raises in 2014 as part of an effort to achieve “pay parity” among top staffers within the legislative and executive branches, and also with similar top government positions in other states.

Ramona Welton, vice president of the Maine State Employees Association, said the raises were a topic in the workplace Thursday. Leaders at MSEA, which represents roughly 13,000 government workers, are in negotiations with the LePage administration on a contract to replace one that expired June 30 but that remains in effect until Sept. 30.

“Although we won’t comment on the contract negotiations, we are encouraged by the governor’s recognition that public-sector employees are underpaid,” Welton said Thursday. “We hope he provides similar compensation and respect to all executive branch employees as he has given to certain appointed employees.”

Welton declined to discuss the ongoing negotiations, but several other state employee unions have secured pay raises. The LePage administration offered 3 percent raises in both 2016 and 2017 to the Maine State Troopers Association and the Maine State Law Enforcement Association. Additionally, those contracts allow qualified employees to move up two steps in salary grade, rather than one, between July 2015 and June 2016 if they meet satisfactory job performance standards.

Craig Poulin, executive director of the troopers association, said the union’s members, who ratified the contract earlier this month, felt the offer was “very fair” given the current economic conditions.

“This is the first meaningful raise people have received in a couple of years and we were quite grateful and gratified by it,” Poulin said. He said the association “has no problem with the raises the governor gave to his staff and to the commissioners.”

STATE TRYING TO RETAIN TOP MANAGERS

LePage has clashed with the state’s public-sector employee unions ever since taking office in 2011, most notably over the administration’s repeated attempts to make Maine a “right-to-work” state in which unions cannot require employees who opt out of union membership to pay fees or dues.

MSEA members received 1 percent pay increases in each of the past two years after several years of frozen wages.

Last July, LePage increased salaries for Cabinet members and their appointees by an average of 4 percent after receiving authorization from the Legislature. The pay raises approved this month are a continuation of that effort to close the gap between salaries paid to top managers in the executive branch and those employed by the Legislature, LePage and his staff said.

Under the new compensation plan, 10 of LePage’s 12 department heads, or commissioners, will see their base salaries increase from $108,929.60 to $127,878.40, a jump of 17.4 percent. Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew will receive a 10.4 percent increase – also to $127,878.40 – because she was already earning more than her counterparts in the administration.

In one case, the pay raise exceeded 17 percent. Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Richard Rosen will make 23.3 percent more this year than last because he began 2014 as director of the Office of Policy and Management and was promoted midway through the year to commissioner, earning $103,671 for both positions.

The salary for Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin will not increase because he is serving on an interim basis while a search for a permanent commissioner is conducted.

“We’re losing all our good people to the Legislature,” LePage told a reporter Thursday after attending a ribbon-cutting event for a pharmacy in Oakland.

OPENING DOOR TO STATE WORKER RAISES?

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said later Thursday that the administration has lost “several people” to the Legislature’s staff, although she declined to single out individuals. Bennett noted that the executive director of the Legislature earns a salary of $128,000 and that other high-level legislative employees also earned six-figure salaries, while the median pay for deputy commissioners was $88,000.

The administration also released the results of a survey of states showing that Maine’s commissioner-level salary was lower than all of the other 15 states that responded except Montana. In Massachusetts, commissioners earned between $135,000 and $228,000, according to data supplied by the LePage administration.

“It’s about wage parity with the Legislature and other states,” Bennett said. “If you look at Massachusetts, they are paid much higher wages than Maine. But we are comparable to New Hampshire and Vermont now.”

MSEA officials often point to studies – including one published in 2009 – showing that Maine state employees often earn less than their counterparts holding similar jobs in the private sector in the state. Asked whether state employees can make the same argument as LePage used to justify the sizable pay increases to his commissioners and top staffers, Bennett said that was “a fair conversation that ought to be had publicly.”

“I’m sure the governor is willing to engage in that conversation,” Bennett said.

The executive branch pay increases followed a rough-and-tumble legislative session in which LePage clashed with lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle over the $6.7 billion two-year budget that went into effect July 1. The governor vetoed the budget – as well as more than 150 other bills – because lawmakers rejected his proposals to make deeper cuts to Maine’s income tax rates while broadening the sales tax. LePage also has criticized lawmakers for blocking his efforts to hold a statewide referendum on eliminating the income tax.

POSSIBLE LEVERAGE IN BASIC-WAGE DEBATE

Advocates for Maine’s lowest-paid workers were quick to seize on LePage’s decision to dole out five-figure pay increases to his top executives at a time when he has resisted calls to increase Maine’s $7.50 minimum wage.

“There are 130,000 Mainers making poverty wages that could use a raise right now,” said Mike Tipping, spokesman for the Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal advocacy group.

The Maine House and Senate passed competing bills to increase the state’s minimum wage in several steps to $9.50 and $9 an hour, respectively. But the two chambers, which are controlled by different parties, disagreed on other changes to Maine’s labor laws, and the wage increase bills failed as a result.

The Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine AFL-CIO are hoping to place a ballot measure before voters in November 2016 that would use several steps to increase the state minimum to $12 an hour by 2020.

Tipping said his organization was disappointed that LePage and lawmakers failed to increase the minimum wage, but his organization has seen “a huge amount of grassroots support” for the referendum campaign.


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