When the Bangor Daily News published a story about Gov. Paul LePage’s vacation policy for political appointees, Democratic operatives thought they had found campaign gold.
From the BDN: “A new policy instituted by Gov. Paul LePage in February substantially increased paid vacation time for 54 political appointees and governor’s office staff, by crediting prior, relevant work experience into how their time is accrued.”
Operatives from the Maine Democratic Party and U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud’s gubernatorial campaign seized on the story to accuse LePage of favoritism, corruption, and all manner of malfeasance.
— David Farmer (@dfarmer14) September 17, 2014
— Maine Democrats (@MaineDems) September 17, 2014
— David Farmer (@dfarmer14) September 17, 2014
The “scandal” was, however, short-lived.
In an op-ed published Monday in the Bangor Daily News, Joyce Oreskovich, set the record straight. As the director of the Bureau of Human Resources for Maine state government, and as a registered Democrat, Oreskovich brought insight and credibility to a policy change that David Farmer, senior adviser to Michuad, was trying to make political hay of.
“Baldacci, not LePage, balanced budget on state workers’ backs. Did union leaders forget?” said the title of her op-ed:
In 2009, then-Gov. John Baldacci and the Democratically controlled House and Senate voted to balance the budget on the backs of state employees. Not only did they freeze raises, merit and longevity pay, but they also instituted government shutdown (“furlough”) days. These furlough days were mandatory layoff days for all state employees and reduced the pay of a state worker by 5 percent. In total, they cost the state workforce almost $13 million. The union expressed outrage.
When Gov. Paul LePage came into office in January 2011, five government shutdown days remained. LePage began work on his new budget, promising his employees to restore their lost pay and to never balance a budget by shutting down our government. He has kept that promise.
I, along with former Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett, was charged early on by the governor to look at wage parity and workforce development issues facing state government. Recruitment and retention of qualified professionals is one of the biggest challenges we face in the public sector, largely due to the disparity in salaries and benefits with counterparts in the private sector and the legislative and judicial branches.
We have been working hard on these issues, for our entire workforce, for several years. This is particularly difficult for senior management-level positions in state government that do not typically offer a long-term career path, as is the case for our appointed officials who join state government only for the term of an administration.
Although the governor initiated the parity and workforce development conversations early on in his administration, the idea to compensate appointees with accrual rates based on prior experience outside of state government was mine. I then vetted the proposal with the internal wage parity group established by Millett, the former finance commissioner, before bringing it to the governor for final approval. The governor tasked me with implementing the new policy, including reviewing the relevant experience levels and computing the additional accrual rates. While the governor can lawfully grant this flexibility for appointees, the law prohibits him from exercising the same flexibility for employees covered by collective bargaining agreements.
I truly believe this is a valuable and legitimate recruitment tool for any chief executive. As a Democrat and career state employee, I commend our governor for taking the beginning steps necessary to address the many workforce development challenges we face.
In summary, Farmer and Democratic operatives were completely wrong. The policy change was not an attempt by the LePage administration to reward political appointees at the expense of other state employees. It was a policy adapted from the private sector and spearheaded by a long-time state worker and Democrat.
And, for what it’s worth, independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler’s statement also missed the mark. Cutler told the BDN: “If the new policy is a good idea it should be a good idea for every state employee not just political employees… It’s time for Governor LePage to stop playing political favorites.”
According to Oreskovich, its not the governor playing favorites that prevents the policy from extending to all state workers; it’s collective bargaining agreements negotiated by the Maine State Employees Association.