Increasing government secrecy is never good policy, but that is exactly what we’re looking at with LD1353, 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.
Payroll information, including benefits, has always been available to Maine taxpayers, and this bill proposes a change in the wrong direction. It would create an enormous shadow to hide government spending.
Mainers who think that state workers are overpaid have reason to worry.
The average private-sector worker in Maine makes 76 cents for every $1 earned by a state worker. We are one of four states in the country where the pay gap is so wide. Throwing a blanket on information about public salaries would eliminate any chance to question or correct that inequity.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center, which has done some extraordinary work studying public salaries in recent years, reports that not only do state workers earn more, they receive — on average — benefits that are nearly twice as generous as seen in the private sector.
Government disagrees and its own studies suggest state workers are underpaid. So, as many private companies hold payrolls steady in this unsteady economy, many public employees have received raises in the past year.
With so much disagreement about either the generosity or the austerity of public salaries, depending on your point of view, the absolute worst thing to do is shield that information, making it possible to secretly increase salaries, benefits and other gratuities — or not. Standing in the dark, we’d never know.
Not only is it important for the public to be able to compare private and public sector salaries for comparable positions, it’s equally important for the public to monitor increases in salaries paid from the public checkbook.
The bill suggests allowing the public to know the salaries of workers by position, but not by name. However, in many small towns in Maine, there is only one person filling a position, so that one person’s salary would be public while other workers’ compensation would be shielded. That would create an unevenly tiered system of confidentiality, and provide the greatest secrecy to large government departments — where one might argue spending can most easily rise without adequate control or question.
In 1987, when the Legislature was reviewing revisions to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, it expressly enacted language prohibiting budget discussions in executive session for the specific purpose of ensuring that discussion of employee salaries takes place in public.
Reversing that public guarantee is unwarranted. Creating unnecessary secrecy at a time when the public is increasingly burdened by taxes, fees and other assessments is really bad public policy. Eroding the public’s right to know is just plain wrong.
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