Op-Ed from Governor's Chief of Staff

June 27, 2011

Op-Ed By John McGough, Chief of Staff Office of the Governor, State of Maine

The State of Maine and the Maine State Employees Association (MSEA), the private union representing many state employees, are negotiating new collective bargaining agreements for those expiring on June 30, 2011.

While the state budget negotiations have been on the front page of our newspapers, these negotiations will also greatly affect the taxpayers of Maine.

On June16, without prior notice, MSEA proposed a two-year contract extension. It presented this as a “one time opportunity” to save on negotiation expenses. After repeated requests by for more time, the private union offered just two business days to accept or reject it.

The State did agree to extend the existing contract, but for only one year, not two. We too wanted to save on costs however; it is irresponsible to wait two full years to fix the costs we have identified in the current contracts.

It seems clear that the MSEA did not really want to save the cost of negotiations because it rejected the extension.

Just as they also rejected the State’s two-year proposal, paid Union officials issued a press release claiming that the State wanted “… to take away rights of Maine workers.” They also said our changes could hurt the ability of workers to perform their jobs.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

None of the State of Maine’s proposals would impact the ability of State employees to perform their jobs safely and efficiently. Why would the State, or any employer for that matter, advance such an agenda?

Instead, the State’s fiscally responsible proposals address unnecessary costs.

What are these structural costs to you -- the taxpayer -- that MSEA wishes to sweep under the rug?

One may shock you. The State, with your tax money, is currently paying a monthly telephone subsidy of $9.00 toward the cost of land-line telephones for some 1,800 state employees. This subsidy started in 1975 at $5.00 and has grown to $9.00. Many of these employees are also provided cell phones; others are rarely if ever called at home. The annual cost to taxpayers is roughly $190,000 per year, $380,000 over the two years of the extension requested by MSEA.

One should ask how many people’s annual taxes would need to be combined together in order to equal this large amount.

Another of our proposals involves the cost to the taxpayer of paying employees wages while they attend private MSEA business meetings and conventions — another $90,000 per year, $180,000 over a two-year period. The State’s proposal would allow employees leave time to attend these activities during the work day, but MSEA could pay their members for what is entirely private union organization business.

It appears MSEA can afford it. With an approximate budget of $5.4 million, their 2010 financial statements indicate they had a $1.5 million surplus last year. They sent that out of state to their international union office in Washington, D.C. Another $2 million was spent on lobbying and political activities, and salaries and benefits for union leaders. Only $1.4 million was spent on collective bargaining representing employees.

Remember that the vast majority of those funds originated from you – the taxpayer.

One of the State’s non-cost policy items in the negotiations was to eliminate fees that prior legislation has forced people to pay into the union when they take a state job. This affects up to 3,000 employees who do not want to pay the fees. This proposal would simply reestablish policy prior to the last Administration - when our State employees were not required to pay these fees in order to get and keep a job and the State of Maine was not a bill collector for the private union.

It is not the intent of State management to devalue the good work of State employees.

We must concern ourselves, however, with balancing the interests of State employees’ with the interests of Maine taxpayers. For years many Maine taxpayers, have not had salary increases, have had to accept cuts in benefits, and experienced significant losses in their retirement accounts.

It is time to remember that the people of Maine work hard at their jobs to pay their taxes and they expect State management to cut unnecessary spending at every possible turn.

That is our focus and that is our mission.

John McGough is currently the Chief of Staff in the Maine Governor’s Office and was previously the Director of Human Resources for the City of South Portland.