AUGUSTA — Trooper Dane Wing said he was giving up his lifelong dream of following in his grandfather’s footsteps by being a Maine State Police trooper.

Wing, who serves with Troop C out of Skowhegan, told the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee he simply couldn’t afford to keep working for the state and was resigning Monday afternoon to take a new job with the federal Department of Homeland Security.

A father of three young boys, Wing said he and his wife, a special education teacher, realized they needed to earn more money to care properly for their family.

“The hardest decision I’ve had to make is whether or not I wanted to give up my dream of being a Maine state trooper and pursue another job opportunity, one that would allow me to provide more for my family,” Wing said. 

Lawmakers are contemplating a bill that would boost the pay for state law enforcement officers, including troopers, game wardens and marine patrol officers, by between 12 and 18 percent.  The bill was offered by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and is sponsored by Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport.

The current starting wage for a state trooper is $18.57 an hour. 

State Police Commissioner John Morris, a LePage appointee, said after Wing’s resignation that the state police would be short 45 troopers in total and that the shortages were a result of not being able to compete for qualified law enforcement professionals.

It’s a sentiment that many lawmakers said they understand — especially when some local police departments can offer better pay and benefits than the state.

“You can make more working for the Fort Kent Police Department,” Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said.

But Morris, who said lawmakers should act to fix the problem quickly, worried that some on the committee were looking instead to politicize the issue or broaden the scope of the bill’s intent to include other state workers, including state forest rangers.

“At times, it appeared to me that some members lost sight of the purpose of the governor’s bill and that was to help recruitment and retention (within the state police),” Morris said following the hearing.  

He said recruiting and retention problems facing the state police, the Maine Warden Service, the Fire Marshal’s Office and the Capitol Police, which provide law enforcement and security for the state government buildings in Augusta, were the main priorities for LePage.

Morris said he was unaware of similar recruitment problems for the other state workers that some lawmakers said were also in need of pay hikes.

Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a committee member, said he wanted the Legislature to stay focused on only law enforcement positions and said he did not view forest rangers as law enforcement.

But Martin and other Democrats, including the committee’s House chairwoman, Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said they intended to address the issue of trooper pay in the remaining weeks of the lawmaking session.

Rotundo said she and her Democratic colleagues agree troopers and other state law enforcement officers should be better compensated, but she said there was also a host of other state workers that were underpaid as well.

Shortly following the hearing on state law enforcement pay hikes, the committee heard another bill that calls for pay increases for those who work at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center, the only forensic mental health facility in the state.

The center is also facing severe staffing shortages and workers there also testified about the difficulty they had in continuing to provide quality care to patients while constantly being tapped to work overtime.

In 2015, Rotundo offered a bill that would have taken a broad look at state-employee compensation with an eye toward ensuring state workers were being offered competitive compensation packages. Rotundo said it was unlikely any legislation to that effect would go forward in 2016, but she hoped lawmakers would make the effort to finally settle the issue of pay for state workers in 2017.

“It’s that kind of long-range planning that we need to do,” Rotundo said. “We need to know where those areas are, where we are not at market-level and we need to address those through negotiations.”

Martin said those labor contract negotiations, with the unions that represent state workers, is where pay issues need to ultimately be settled. 

“If you are thinking about recruitment and retention as you do collective bargaining, you don’t end up in crisis because you have been giving fair pay raises along the way,” Rotundo said. “Governing by crisis is not the way forward for Maine.”

LePage’s proposal will join several other bills sponsored by lawmakers that look to increase salaries and benefits for a range of state employees, including a bill that would hike by 5 percent the base salary for state law enforcement supervisors as well.

All of those measures will face future deliberations before the Appropriations Committee and the full Legislature in the weeks ahead.

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