AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal by an influential Democratic lawmaker to study why some state agencies are understaffed could lead to better pay for state workers if the proposal manages to survive votes in the Legislature and the veto pen of Gov. Paul LePage.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, told fellow lawmakers on Monday that virtually every one of the Legislature’s policy committees has heard tales of state bureaus and agencies that are short-staffed or experiencing an ongoing churn of employees.

Rotundo’s bill, LD 1103, directs the Department of Administrative and Financial Services to compile information about staffing levels, caseload and workload averages, turnover rates and overtime pay in all state departments. The bill also calls for a comparison of state salaries with similar private-sector jobs.

Rotundo said the short-staffing she suspects the study would find results from years of austere budgets, frozen wages, increasing health premiums and cutting positions.

“Our employees deserve to be treated with respect and to be compensated fairly,” said Rotundo.

According to Rotundo, the most recent study like the one she’s proposing was done in 2009 but wasn’t seen for several years because it was marked confidential. That study, however, was circulated Monday by the Maine State Employees Association, a labor union representing 13,000 of the state’s workers, and posted on the union’s website.

The study found that a range of state workers earn far less than they could in the private sector, more than 21 percent less than engineers, technicians, chemists and highway maintenance workers.

Since that study, state workers went without raises for four years — largely because of a period of a faltering economy and poor state revenues — before being given a 1 percent raise in 2013 and another 1 percent in 2014. Merit pay increases were also re-instituted in 2013 after years of being frozen.

Hiring and wage freezes predate the LePage administration. They were implemented by former Gov. John Baldacci to address chronic state revenue shortfalls during the later years of his governorship.

“It should be clear to all of us that taken together, the many years of hiring freezes, merit and longevity pay freezes, benefit cuts, position eliminations and the ensuing epidemic of unfilled jobs, many of which are intentionally left unfilled, have resulted in a pervasive public employee recruitment and retention problem throughout Maine state government,” said MSEA-SEIU Local 1989 President Ginette Rivard.

Gregg Hesslein of Brownfield, a district forest ranger supervisor, said he has had three vacancies in his district for two years.

“In my 29 years of services with many cuts over those years, I have not seen it this bad where the morale is as low as it is,” said Hesslein.

LePage, who has long said state government is too big and has to be reduced to better match available revenues, has proposed in his biennial budget cutting more than 200 state jobs over the next two years, most of them through attrition. Since fiscal year 2008, when LePage was elected for his first term, the number of state employees has gone down from 14,169 to 13,263 in fiscal year 2014.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.