LEWISTON — Crystal Ward, a retired American government teacher, is not happy with her governor.
Gov. Paul LePage is blaming the wrong people, she said.
"It's not retired teachers' fault the stock market crashed or the state failed to pay its bills,” Ward said.
She and many other retired teachers oppose LePage's proposed budget, which would create savings by changing retirement benefits.
The proposals include not providing health coverage for retired teachers until they reach the age of 65 (instead of age 62); capping cost-of-living adjustments to no more than 4 percent per year; freezing what the state pays toward health care, which would mean retirees would pay more; and asking teachers to pay 2 percent more of their income toward retirement.
That's not what teachers were promised, Ward said. “In a democracy, the government should live up to its promises.”
Before she retired from Lewiston High School in 2008, she paid into her retirement plan for 34 years, carefully planning for her retirement.
“Now my plan has gone out the window,” she said.
Yvonne Gross, also retired from Lewiston High School, said that during her 30-plus years in the classroom, “we had governors and legislators who took some of our retirement money to balance the budget. I don't consider that to be my problem." And she didn't cause the stock market to go down, Gross said.
Both said they understand there's not enough money to pay the retirement bills, and they are willing to help.
But what is being asked of them is too much, Ward said. "The hurt is too deep."
Stephen Bowen, LePage's nominee for commissioner of the Department of Education, said he understands the frustrations.
But there's a bigger picture, he said.
“The unfunded liability is massive,” Bowen said, with pension plans and health care costs totaling into the billions. Past legislators “watched and made promises to folks, but made no effort to pay it down.”
LePage is looking at a huge debt “and plans to do what no governor or Legislature has done: Confront it head-on,” Bowen said.
He hopes teachers will consider the kind of “staggering” savings the changes will generate in the long term.
Paying the debt will eventually free money to do other things, Bowen said, “like ramp up the state share in education to 55 percent.”
On top of the pension debt, the retirement age of 62 is unsustainable, he said.
Just as Social Security retirement has crept from age 65 to 66 and 67, “we have to build a system that realizes people live longer than they used to.”
The state can't afford to pay people pensions and health care benefits for 25 to 30 years, Bowen said. "Gov. LePage needs to build a system that is sustainable. The only way to do that is to make structural changes.”
No one is losing benefits, Bowen said, adding that the changes are “modest.”
Steve Crouse of the Maine Education Association disagreed, calling the proposal “too extreme in every sense.”
Retired teachers would be receptive “if they came in with a moderate proposal,” Crouse said.
It's true that many in the private sector can't retire at 62, “but teachers have planned for this,” Crouse said. Forcing them to work until age 65 would mean teachers would be in classrooms when they don't want to be there, which wouldn't be good for anyone, he said.
Teachers were aggravated to learn that the 2 percent increase being asked of them for retirement would not go to the retirement debt but to the state's General Fund, Crouse said.
“They're taking extra dollars out of our hides to pay for other programs,” he said.
Teachers are meeting with local legislators and gearing up for a March 4 public hearing in Augusta, Crouse said. “We're expecting a big turnout.”