The state's sacred cow

State governments are awash in red ink. The sputtering economy has left more than half the country's legislatures with revenue shortfalls.

Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons has taken steps to plug a $542 million hole. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed $14.5 billion in cuts. New Jersey faces a $3.5 billion shortfall -- after racking up more than $30 billion in debt to balance previous budgets.

Yet, while chief executives order park closures, trim welfare benefits and slash other supposedly vital services, the single greatest expense for governments -- public employee wages and benefits -- is off the table in many places. Even as taxpayers endure job losses, rising health insurance premiums and stagnant wages, the government workers they support enjoy ironclad job security, guaranteed pay raises, platinum-plated medical benefits and rosy retirements.

The idea that public employees should share in the pain of budget cuts and a looming recession is rarely part of any discussion -- except in the state you might least expect.

Maine, a state that has long embraced high taxes and job-killing regulation as a matter of course, is mired in its own budget woes. The government is looking at a nearly $100 million budget shortfall over the next 18 months.

But rather than see one of the nation's biggest tax burdens grow further, a handful of lawmakers and advocacy groups have begun making the case that taxpayers can no longer be expected to support salaries and benefits that aren't available in the state's shrinking job base.

The Alliance for Maine's Future reports that the median state worker salary is $46,000, well above the $32,000 median in the private sector. But the average cost of a state employee's benefit package is a whopping $23,000 per year, when workers throughout the state receive only $6,400 in benefits.

As a starting point, Republican state Reps. Patrick Flood and James Annis have asked that state employees, who pay nothing toward their own health insurance premiums and have the bulk of their families' coverage subsidized by taxpayers, begin making contributions that are comparable to what private-sector workers must pay.

Some of Maine's newspapers have taken notice. The editorial boards of the Kennebec Journal (in the state capital of Augusta) and the Bangor Daily News have endorsed the idea.

"The 13,000 employees of the state of Maine make out a heck of a lot better than the taxpayers who pay for that health insurance. ... Surely, when faced with potential job losses, this is an area where state workers might be willing to give a little?" the Kennebec Journal asked.

"Generous benefit packages, once a way to encourage longevity and perhaps make up for pay rates that were less than those in the business world, are out of balance with the private sector and costing taxpayers," a Bangor Daily News editorial reasoned.

These are no bastions of right-wing rhetoric. The day after backing cuts in the state's share of employee health insurance premiums, the Bangor Daily News became the country's first daily newspaper editorial board to call for the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Nevada goverment workers, particularly at the local level, have the highest salaries of any sector of the state's work force -- and they pay no Social Security withholding, which affords an even higher standard of living. Their retirement benefits are so generous that taxpayers are on the hook for about $10 billion in unfunded pension payments and health care subsidies.

But no one within Nevada's political establishment is willing to champion the cause of reining in public-sector compensation to sustainable levels.

Which raises the question: If such a debate can take place in the liberal paradise of Maine, how bad do things have to get before taxpayers demand more than talk, here in Nevada?