March 20, 2011

MIKE TIPPING: Pension flap is one small piece of the unfair state budget picture

Mike Tipping

Last week's column about Gov. Paul LePage exempting his own pension from the cutbacks he has proposed for Maine teachers and public employees sure got people talking.

In what is perhaps, in our socially networked society, the best measure of interest, more than 4,000 people recommended the piece on Facebook. The comments I read mostly expressed disbelief that the governor would make a move that looks so bad, both publicly and politically.

Some online commentator also mentioned that Article 5, Section 6 might prevent the governor from making this kind of change. I was remiss in not addressing this last week, so let's take a second to clear it up now.

The Constitution states that the governor's compensation "shall not be increased or diminished during the Governor's continuance in office." While this would prevent the Governor doing something like increasing his salary, it probably wouldn't prevent him from changing his pension contribution, and it certainly wouldn't prevent him from sharing in the pain of his cutbacks.

In fact, it's been done before. As the Sun Journal noted this week, Republican Gov. John McKernan did something very similar in 1990 without even changing any laws. He simply gave an extra $1,346 of his salary back to the general fund as a way of showing solidarity with state workers.

The LePage administration, however, will apparently not be following in McKernan's footsteps.

Early in the week, it seemed like they might. The governor's commissioner of the Department of Administrative & Financial Services, Sawin Millett, was the first to respond, and he admitted that the administration hadn't thought about the issue and said they'd consider making a change.

"I intend to have that conversation, given the stories that have occurred over the weekend," Millett told Maine Public Radio.

LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said something very similar to WGME-13 later that day. He asserted that LePage's exemption wasn't deliberate and that the governor was willing to consider increasing his contribution.

LePage didn't take very long to consider it, however. One day later, the administration announced that they'd decided not to include the governor in his own cuts.

Demeritt's final response on the pension issue came not in a news release or a statement to the media, but in a post on the online conservative forum As Maine Goes. In it, he defended LePage's budget and his own statements on the subject, declared that "The budget is in the hands of the Legislature" and ended with this line:

"But the LePage Administration is not going to run down to the Appropriations Committee because Mike Tipping wrote a column and pretend an additional $1,400 pension contribution from the lowest paid Governor in the country is a solution to our giant budget problems. And that's the truth."

That's disappointing. It's also ironic, considering that LePage had taken the opposite stance three days earlier, threatening to veto the budget if the Legislature changed any of his proposals for pension cutbacks, tax breaks or cuts to social programs.

Compared to the size and scope of the budget, LePage's personal pension contribution is pretty small potatoes, but I'd argue that there's a larger symbolic and moral issue here, a concept that McKernan obviously understood.

When you make a moral justification for cutting the retirement savings of teachers and public workers by invoking the idea of "shared sacrifice," you can't exempt yourself and expect your arguments to be taken seriously.

Starting with this one small piece is also a useful way to begin discussing the fundamental unfairness of the larger budget, which is something I addressed in last week's column and which I hope is the main idea that emerges from this controversy.

If LePage really thinks it's fair to cut health coverage for working parents, drug care for seniors, property tax assistance for struggling homeowners and undercut the retirements of 75,000 current and former teachers and state employees in order to provide massive new tax breaks for the wealthy, the least he can do is offer to cough up a few bucks and share a very small amount of the pain.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He's @miketipping on Twitter. email: miketipping@gmail.com

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