Bilking Government Workers
Maine's 3,000 non-union state employees ought to march en masse to the office of Governor John Baldacci and ask him to explain exactly what is fair about "fair share." Tucked away in the $5.8-billion state budget bill passed by Democrats in March was a wage contract requiring, for the first time, that all non-union state employees pay union dues as a condition of continued employment.
They call it "fair share," although it is anything but fair. Two years ago, coinciding with Baldacci's inauguration, state negotiators caved in to the Maine State Employees Association (MSEA) and agreed that all new hires from that point on - union members and non-members alike - would be required to pay "fair share" dues to the MSEA to cover the cost of contract negotiations. That never should have happened. Now, thanks to the governor and legislature, that provision has been broadened to include not just new hires but all employees, providing an annual windfall of about $700,000 to the MSEA.
The MSEA's argument, and that of the governor, is that the union is negotiating contracts for all those individuals who choose, whether on principle or for other reasons, not to join. Hence, they should be required to provide financial support. The truth is that many of those non-union members would be more than happy to fend for themselves, were they allowed to do so. But they're not. The further truth is that the cost of the negotiating process doesn't rise or fall depending upon the number of union members. The union doesn't negotiate for Joe Smith or Tom Jones as individuals; it bargains wages and benefits for positions and classes of employees.
But Baldacci never met a union he did not like, and he clearly has no qualms about forcing non-union members to pay tribute to the MSEA or give up their jobs. For full-time workers that now means monthly dues of $9.10 if you belong to the union and $6.71 if you don't. But either way, you pay. The governor has turned state government into what is commonly known as a "closed shop."
It would be gratifying to see outraged legislators rise up and act to repeal the so-called "fair share" provision. Unions ought to succeed or fail based solely on their appeal to prospective members. Government - and by extension that is all of us - should not be demanding that its employees join or otherwise support the MSEA or any other such organization. There's nothing fair about threatening an individual with the loss of his livelihood to force him to conform.
Revaluing Peaks Island
It had to come sooner or later. The fact that Peaks Island residents are about to suffer a long-overdue property revaluation isn't welcome news for many of the residents, some of whom have modest incomes. Many are facing tax bills that will double or even triple.
That's unfortunate for the residents, but not to go ahead with the revaluation as scheduled isn't fair. Many home values have increased more rapidly than the values of commercial properties, so it's Portland business owners - as well as some other homeowners - who are making up the difference.
The Portland City Council has already listened to the concerns of city residents about the impact of such revaluations. The council split the increases in half and is implementing them over two years, just as it did during the last revaluation in 1991 and 1992. That should help many of the residents to cope.
Portland city councilors had already postponed the implementation of the new values on the expectation that the state would come up with some local property tax relief. That wasn't a good plan, though, because the city still needs to collect taxes no matter what the state does.
State lawmakers should continue to look for ways to help middle-class residents who suddenly find themselves owning a higher-class home, perhaps by deferring tax payments until a property is sold. In the meantime, though, it's not fair to make others shoulder their burden.
-Portland Press Herald
Updating the State Police
With new equipment and responsibilities, police work has changed a lot in the last six decades. The State Police's system of barracks and patrols has not. An assessment of the force and where and how it works is now underway and should bring the police up to date.
The aim of the long-overdue review is to "find the best ways to use what we have," says Colonel Craig Poulin, the head of the Maine State Police. He hopes to have a realignment plan developed by this summer.
What the police have are seven barracks, a system set up in the 1940s when troopers actually slept in the buildings. The barracks are in Alfred, Gray, Thomaston, Skowhegan, Orono, East Machias, and Houlton. When the system was set up, communications equipment consisted of telephones, paper messages - often filled out in triplicate - and radios.
Today, radios remain important, but with troopers able to find and submit information via laptop computers, staffing needs have changed. Rather than returning to a barracks to fill out paperwork, troopers can now spend more time in the field. As a result, the number of support personnel in the barracks could decrease with people reassigned to other tasks. The State Police are also responsible for the state's crime lab and criminal justice academy.
The review is necessary not only because of the state's continued budget crunch, but also the increasing difficulty of finding qualified people to join the State Police. The department has about 500 employees. It is authorized to have 340 law-enforcement personnel. It currently has about 316. One reason for the recruiting difficulties is the absence of young people in Maine. As the oldest state in the country there are simply fewer people of working age, especially those just starting their careers. In addition, fewer people are choosing law-enforcement careers nationwide.
Against this backdrop, changing the way the State Police system is organized is crucial - to make the best use of resources, both financial and human, and to ensure the public is served.
At the same time, the State Police are working more closely with county sheriff departments. Cooperative agreements are in place in ten counties and Colonel Poulin aims to have the entire state covered by the end of the year. For example, the two levels of law enforcement are working together to coordinate schedules so that they are not duplicating effort.
Doing more with less has become a mantra in Augusta. The State Police are acting on it.
-Bangor Daily News
Caution on Plum Creek
A major development proposed by Plum Creek Timber Company for Moosehead Lake is a project that should be approached by the state openly, but also carefully and with a clear look at the future. Plum Creek seeks to develop up to 11,000 acres that would include two resorts, almost 1,000 home lots, and a commercial development. It also would put 382,000 acres under timberland zoning rules for at least thirty years, while conservation easements would protect walking trails, snowmobile trails, and remote ponds.
The proposal appears, at first blush, to balance conservation with development. The Moosehead area is one that could use an economic boost, but its natural beauty is what draws people to the region for vacations.
What the state should keep in mind as it reviews the project are the questions that have already been raised: Are the easements adequate to protect the resources? What guarantees protection of the remaining land? How would such a development impact the region?
The project is simultaneously exciting and concerning. Some Maine residents want the state to freeze development around the lake until the state has a long-term plan for the area. While the project appears to deserve to go forward, planning would be wise. The Plum Creek development likely won't be the last.
-Maine Sunday Telegram, Portland