AUGUSTA — It never looks good when politicians raise their own pay, but a special commission to look at how the Maine Legislature should be compensated is exploring that subject.

The State Compensation Committee will send its recommendation to the full Legislature in January. Legislative leaders have mixed views about how much Maine’s citizen lawmakers should be paid and whether or not they should give themselves a raise.

Lawmakers, who can serve up to four two-year terms in a row in either the House or the Senate, are now paid $14,000 in the first year of the two-year session and $10,000 in the second. They also receive a daily travel allotment of up to $38 and a daily meal allotment of $32.

The state ranks low for lawmaker pay, according to a 2018 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a national nonprofit organization that provides research to lawmakers and the public. The highest-paid legislators are in California, where the base salary is $107,000 a year. New Mexico lawmakers get no salary but receive a per diem allotment of $161. New Hampshire has the second-lowest base salary of $100 a year. All but six states also pay daily allowances for food and travel expenses, which range from as much as $230 to as little as $35.

Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said most Maine lawmakers realize it’s not a job that will make them rich, but he says it might be time for a small raise. The Legislature last boosted its own pay 15 years ago.

“My view is, it is public service and we are here to donate a lot of our time,” Dow told the compensation commission at a meeting last week. He said even when he’s recruiting candidates for office, he makes sure they understand it’s not a lucrative career move.

As the owner of a furniture store, Dow said he’s fortunate he can be away from his business for extended periods because he has good employees and his wife to keep track of things while he’s working for the people he represents in Augusta.

Dow, who is serving his second term in the Senate, said he didn’t come to the State House to make money, but he could see raising legislative pay to $20,000 a year – if it were done incrementally over several years.

However, he noted that even with the relatively low pay, there never seems to be a real shortage of candidates for the Legislature.

Maine prides itself on having a “citizen Legislature” whose members are not professional politicians. The current group of lawmakers includes a wide range of professions, including farmers, small-business owners, brewers, lobstermen and women, teachers, lawyers, doctors, retirees, police officers and nurses. Of the 186 lawmakers, 71 are women and 115 are men.

The first year of the legislative session usually runs from January until June, while the second year of the session runs from January to April or May. Lawmakers are also occasionally summoned back to the State House by the governor for special emergency sessions.

At last week’s commission meeting, lawmakers made it clear they were aware that the optics aren’t good when they give themselves a raise – so any pay increase would likely be a minor one.

“Nobody here in their right mind is going to vote for some massive pay increase,” said House Majority Leader Matt Moonen, D-Portland. Moonen, who is in his fourth term in the House and can’t seek re-election because of term limits, quipped that he might be able to vote for a big boost for the next person to hold the seat, but he didn’t think others would join him.

He said he does believe the pay for lawmakers should be increased because it currently limits who will be able to serve. He said he likes Dow’s idea of an incremental increase, which would be easier to budget and sell to the public and other lawmakers.

But even with the state running a budget surplus, Moonen sounded skeptical.

“I just don’t know what the appetite is for a bill with a huge fiscal note,” he said.

Moonen said the public is also generally mistaken about how much state lawmakers are paid, often confusing them with members of the U.S. Congress, who are paid a base salary by the federal government of $174,000 a year.

The compensation committee is also considering pay increases for Maine’s judges and for the governor. Both are ranked last in the nation, with the governor’s $70,000-a-year salary being lower than most of the members of the executive Cabinet. Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage tried twice unsuccessfully to boost the pay of his successor, arguing it would help attract more qualified candidates for the job.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat who has served seven terms in that office but also served four terms in the Maine House of Representatives, said he’s been through the pay-hike debates before. As secretary of state, Dunlap earns a salary of $96,000. Dunlap’s wife is Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town.

Dunlap said the struggle over legislative pay is real and he remembers when he was first elected to the Legislature in 1996. It was also the first year in his life he had ever earned more than $30,000 – largely because he was working two jobs at the time, Dunlap said.

“I actually had somewhat of a panic attack the night I won the election,” Dunlap said. It came on as he realized he was about to take a 60 percent cut in his income to go serve in the Legislature. “Now that’s not much of a victory party, is it?”

He said boosting pay would ensure that the Legislature could keep a mixture of citizens in the State House and that it didn’t become a place just for people who are retired or run their own businesses.

“It’s a time-honored debate,” Dunlap said.

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