No one ever wants to give lawmakers a raise – not even the lawmakers themselves. But if we want state legislators to meet the escalating demands of the job, a raise is what it will take.

Members of the Maine Legislature are among the lowest-paid state lawmakers in the country. It’s been 15 years since legislators last had a pay raise, and in January the State Compensation Committee is expected to make a recommendation on whether that should change.

Whatever pay increase may be coming, it’s doubtful it will make up for a decade and a half of inflation. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle told Press Herald Staff Writer Scott Thistle recently that while a raise is needed, members know the public won’t accept anything more than a minor one – when the public’s paying, it never looks good to give yourself a raise.

But for all the flak they take, lawmakers do an indispensable job, and as a whole they do it well. The action can be frustratingly slow and often impenetrable. The Editorial Board itself has criticized the Legislature when it breaks down. But that’s what can happen when legislators with different backgrounds, constituencies and ways of seeing the world come together to solve an endless array of problems, with politics and power as the backdrop.

Each session a few big issues grab the spotlight. But the work of a legislator is more often much less dramatic. Last session began with just less than 2,000 bills under consideration. Public hearings and work sessions follow – hours of slow, sometimes tedious conferences aimed at shaping legislation.

The first session of each Legislature typically runs from January to June, and the second from January to April or May. Lawmakers receive about $14,000 for the first session and about $10,000 for the second. They also get a meal and travel allowance, plus health insurance and funds for constituent services.

As annual incomes go, it’s not much more than poverty level for a one-person household. Compared to other states’ legislative pay, it’s low, too – at 32 percent of median household income, Maine’s legislative pay ranks 10th lowest.

However, legislative pay overall is low almost everywhere – one review found the average base pay nationwide to be $20,833 a year.

In some sense, you get what you pay for. In Maine, the low pay and long hours of legislative work mean most of the people able to serve are retired or self-employed, or at least have very flexible work schedules. As a result, the Legislature is not representative of the state as a whole. It may work diligently through a lot of bills, but some voices are missing from the debate.

As lawmakers review the compensation committee’s recommendations, it should consider whether a pay raise would allow underrepresented Mainers to run.

The Legislature should look at legislative support services as well. Studies have found that increasing staff and salary can make for better lawmakers – they work through more bills, are more attentive to constituents, more independent of party and better prepared to take on complex reforms.

With Congress at a standstill, more and more issues are being decided at the state level. On top of that, Maine has many tough, monumental areas of concern that it will have to work out for itself – clean energy, our aging population and our shrinking workforce, to mention a few.

The Maine Legislature does a good job, but it could always be better. Higher pay is part of making that a reality.

 

 

 


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