Current state employees are probably breathing a sigh of relief following Gov. Paul LePage’s promise Thursday not to conduct across-the-board cuts in state workers or payroll.

The governor, in fact, was complimentary of the state work force, although he announced that a hiring freeze adopted during his predecessor’s term will continue.

Most current state employees also would see no change in their retirement packages, although newly hired workers would have to work longer to receive full retirement benefits.

The news for state retirees and teachers was less reassuring. They would be asked to forgo cost-of-living increases for two years and to accept more “modest increases” in the future.

The savings would be $524 million in the next biennium. In the long term, the governor said Thursday, the state’s unfunded employee retirement liability would be reduced by $2.5 billion over the next 16 years, and retiree health-care benefits would be cut by $1 billion.

The changes would save the average Maine taxpayer $10,700 over the same period.

Other changes in the governor’s address included:

* A two-year freeze on all state bonding;

* A $63 million increase in General Purpose Aid to Education;

* A $203 million tax cut for Mainers from conforming Maine tax code to federal code;

* And a slight reduction, six-tenths of 1 percent, in the state’s income tax rate, which would probably save the average Maine family a couple hundred dollars a year;

* A promise to reform Maine’s welfare system, including eliminating a provision that gives legal noncitizen applicants immediate welfare benefits;

* More money to pay off the state’s debt to hospitals;

* An ironclad promise not to abandon the mentally ill, the elderly, the disabled or veterans. The governor did stress several times, however, that he would return Maine to a place of “work” rather than “dependency.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the governor’s address was his enthusiastic support of a bill that would essentially move much of the state’s budget process forward a year.

The bill, titled “An Act To Establish a New Method of Determining the State Budget,” has some bipartisan support, according to the governor.

The bill sets a variety of deadlines for gathering and presenting revenue and expense information from state agencies.

This, apparently, would allow the governor and Legislature to more thoroughly analyze state spending before creating the next biennial budget.

The governor’s proposal mirrors much of what he talked about on the campaign trail, and it is probably less painful than his most avid critics feared or that his most ardent supporters had expected.

The governor’s address was simply the broad-brush outline of his spending plan.

He mixed a variety of spending cuts with tax cuts and some actual spending increases, most notably to schools and hospitals.

It was very hard to decipher from the speech, however, how this package will cover the much-discussed $800 million “structural gap” in the state’s two-year budget.  The math on that remains fuzzy.

The answer, we trust, will be in the detailed budget document the governor will release Friday.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.


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