Republican radio address
For weekend of April 18-19, 2009

Greetings, this is Josh Tardy, leader of the Republicans in the Maine House.

Last year, the cause of openness and honesty in state government took a big step forward. A website called MaineOpenGov.org was created to post the names and salaries of everyone on the public payroll – some 90,000 people, including state employees, school employees and other public employees.

The site caused a big stir when it first appeared. The information was already in the public domain, but the website made it easily accessible. As a general principle, the public has a right to know who is working for state government and how much money they are making. After all, the taxpaying public foots the bill. The taxpayers of Maine are essentially the employers of all public employees, just as the owner of a private company is the employer of the company’s workers. The term “public employee” says it all. If they work for the public, the people paying the bills expect a level of accountability.

The website was such a major advance towards openness in government that the site’s manager, the non-partisan Maine Heritage Policy Center, was recently voted the winner of the Sunshine Award. This honor is presented annually by the board of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, which includes all kinds of groups, from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to the Maine Civil Liberties Union. The vote was unanimous, a recognition that transparent public spending is a Maine tradition that dates back to the earliest town meetings and continues to this day.

It didn’t take long for the forces of censorship and secrecy to strike back, though. A bill now moving through the Legislature would hide the names of all employees on the public payroll. The sponsor of the bill, Democratic Senator Lisa Marrache, defended it this week in a column in the Kennebec Journal. She said the practice of publicly identifying the names and salaries of government employees was – quote – “sleazy.”

Sen. Marrache is not part of the Senate rank and file. She is the assistant majority leader. And she has lined up nine cosponsors, all Democrats, including the president of the Senate, Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell. Senator Mitchell herself has now waded into the fray, claiming that the website is an attempt to – quote – “harass and embarrass” government employees.

The key word here is embarrass. Let’s look at the landscape of state government. The Democrats control the House, the Senate and the governorship – the whole ballgame. They’ve run the Maine House for 35 straight years. The last time Republicans held total control was 1962 – 47 years ago – so the Democrats have enjoyed a long run of power. During that time they have expanded state government dramatically, adding thousands and thousands of jobs.

For sure, the insiders in Augusta were not happy when Mainers began combing through the website to find some very interesting facts about the state payroll. They looked at the governor’s salary, for example, which comes in at about $70,000. Then they discovered that 2,041 state workers make more money than the chief executive. That’s right – more than 2,000 state employees make more than the governor.

Overtime pay is another eye-opener. According to data on the website, 413 state employees racked up more than $10,000 in overtime last year. The total overtime compensation of these same employees was more than $19 million – which works out to an average of just over $46,000 apiece. Some of these workers earned more in overtime than they made in their regular salaries.

With information like that getting out to a population already hopping mad about high taxes, it’s no wonder the Augusta insiders are trying to put a chokehold on transparency. But this time they are running into resistance. It is a rare event when the editorial writers of Maine newspapers attack a bill proposed by a Democrat, but they have come down on this one like an avalanche.

The Brunswick Times Record editorialized that the Marrache legislation “would put this state back in the dark ages with respect to Maine’s Freedom of Access law.” It called L.D. 1353 “a misguided piece of legislation that deserves a quick death at the committee level with a unanimous ‘ought not to pass’ recommendation stamped across the document.”

The Lewiston Sun Journal weighed in with this critique: “Increasing government secrecy is never good policy; but that is exactly what we’re looking at with L.D. 1353, a bill to censor public salaries at all levels of government. Public workers are paid with taxes and fees wrestled from our collective pockets. We have an absolute right to know where that money is spent – every penny of it.”

The Marrache bill is officially entitled “An Act Regarding Salary Information for Public Employees.” It will make its formal debut on April 30, with a public hearing before the Judiciary Committee. We’ll know a few weeks later if the Democrats on the committee will stand up for transparent government or back down to secrecy and concealment.

This is Josh Tardy. Thanks very much for listening.

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