Oped by Senator Justin Alfond

March 17, 2011

The 125th Legislature has been active. The governor has just announced his budgeting priorities for the next biennium. And, of course, as is the nature of budget talks, lots of numbers have been thrown around. But I want to talk about something more important than how the math adds up. People. And in particular our school teachers and state employees.

The governor’s proposal cuts $524 million dollars from public employees’ and school teachers’ pensions. This is unfair. And it is wrong. Plain and simple, thousands of working Maine families will suffer as a consequence of Governor LePage’s cuts.

This budget proposal clearly puts politics before people. And, when the governor attempts to balance the budget on the backs of teachers and public employees, we, as Democrats, will not be complicit in doing so.

For some reason, certain words have been vilified recently. So, let’s get back to basics and talk in facts — not distortions or political rhetoric. Words like “pension,” “state worker,” and strangely, even “teacher” have become “fighting words.” And just like with any other exaggeration or fear tactic, we have to set the record straight.

A pension is a retirement fund for our teachers and state workers. And in Maine, the vast majority of our retired teachers and state workers are ineligible for Social Security. These retirement benefits are earned over an entire career, and families are dependent upon them. Teachers and state workers deserve a retirement with dignity.

And did you know that the average pension for a schoolteacher after 25 years of service is a modest $26,000 per year. So again, after TWENTY-FIVE years of teaching, a retired teacher will receive about $2,000 a month in retirement benefits. What’s more, only 13 percent of the teachers in Maine teach for 25 years.

So you tell me, is there a lot of fat to trim?

Our retirees have paid into the system with a guaranteed promise — and now that promise is being broken. Retirees have contributed more toward their pensions than the state — making up 58 percent of the current cost. The state must keep its promise.

It is also plain wrong and unfair to freeze cost-of-living increases for the next three years. Retirees count on cost-of-living increases for their retirement. Food, gas, housing, heating, and medical care — all of these costs are rising. At this rate, we are putting our retirees in serious jeopardy.

Earlier this week, I received a letter from a veteran teacher from Caribou who is retiring this year after 36 years of service. In her letter, she described the careful planning that went in to calculating her retirement. After learning about the governor’s proposed budget, she said this: “I feel like the rug has been pulled out from underneath my feet and the rules have been changed at the end of the game.”

Is this any way to treat the committed teachers and state workers who have devoted their time and service?

Absolutely not. We know that we can do better for the dedicated teachers and state workers. My Democratic colleagues and I would agree that reasonable adjustments may be needed to help ease the state budget through the current recession. And, I’ve heard from many public workers that they are willing to do their share. But it is irresponsible and frankly immoral to sacrifice 76,000 Maine families who are our teachers and state workers to appease Tea Party rhetoric. My Democratic colleagues and I are eager to work across the aisle with our Republican colleagues to find solutions that won’t break the state’s promise to our teachers and state workers.

Mainers know that when you give your word to something, it matters.