Democratic leadership is cautioning its members not to take the estimated $3,500 a piece they’re being offered as pay for a special session called in 2003, saying the money is a political hot potato.

“Many of us are going to refuse that money,” said Majority Leader Rep. Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, at a Democratic caucus meeting Monday. “The public will be interested” in who takes it and who doesn’t, he said. “Make that part of your calculation.”

At issue is an estimated $800,000 in back pay that will be offered to members of the 121st Legislature for their work in a special session in 2003. That session was really just an administrative maneuver to start the clock ticking so the state budget could be enacted by the start of the fiscal year. That same tactic was used this year on the controversial budget just passed at the end of March, which includes $447 million in borrowing to pay state expenses. The law, however, has been changed, so there’s no money attached to this year’s session.

“This is hotter than that pizza you’re eating,” Rep. Herbert Adams, D-Portland, said to his fellow Democrats at the lunchtime caucus. “It could spin out of control…and when talk radio gets ahold of it, that will be the only thing they’re talking about for a week.”

“No matter how badly you need the money,” he warned, “don’t take it.”

Under the state constitution, legislation does not go into effect until 90 days after the Legislature recesses, unless it is approved as an emergency with a two-thirds vote. Without the needed votes to pass a two-thirds budget, Democrats recessed in March of 2003 and again this year, to start the clock ticking on the 90 days so the budget would go into effect on July 1 – the start of the fiscal year. When they came back to finish their work, they technically were in a special session, which pays $100 a day when the Legislature meets and $55 a day for committee work, in addition to the regular legislative salary of just under $20,000 for two years.

Democrats said they didn’t want the money, but Republicans pushed for the pay as a way to block the budget-passing maneuver. Ultimately four legislators – two Republicans, one Democrat and one independent – sued, and the courts ruled in March they were due the money.

“We wanted to impose a penalty for the majority party to call a special session without real merit,” said Minority Leader Rep. David Bowles, R-Sanford.

Bowles said he’s already told his members that taking the money is “a personal decision. They can accept it, deny it or give it to charity. They earned it and they’re entitled,” he said. Asked if he was going to take the pay, Bowles said, “yes, but I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with it.”

While Democrats did the same thing this year – passing the budget with only one Republican vote and then recessing, they have since changed the law. Now the $100 per diem does not go into effect unless the special session is held after the regular session normally would have ended, which is June 15.

Letters should be going out to legislators this week showing what each is owed – based on attendance – and asking them if they want to get paid or not. The money that isn’t paid out will stay in the general fund, according to David Boulter, the executive director of the Legislative Council, which makes decisions involving the operation of the Legislature. The council is made up of leadership from both parties.

Boulter said the council voted to offer each member some pay – estimated at $3,000 to $3,500 – once the court ruled in the lawsuit. He said the decision to offer everybody pay was done to “preclude other lawsuits…and resolve the dispute.”

Rep. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, cajoled his fellow Democrats to say no to the extra pay, asking, “What did we do extra to deserve that money?”