A state commission recommends increasing the salary of Maine’s governor from $70,000 to $130,000 and giving hefty raises to lawmakers and judges, all of whom rank at or near the bottom nationally in compensation.

In a unanimous report approved Monday, the five-member State Compensation Commission said its recommendations “are rooted in our respect and appreciation of those who are willing to serve.”

The report calls for “meaningful changes” in compensation and benefits for Maine’s chief executive, judges and lawmakers. The recommendations will be sent to Gov. Janet Mills and to the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee, where recent history suggests it could face a difficult political path.

“Maine is very fortunate to have very talented people who serve in all of these positions,” said Vendean Vafiades, chairwoman of the commission and a former District Court judge and Public Utilities Commission member. “These folks are so accessible and available and work very hard.”

The $70,000 salary of Maine’s governor, for instance, has not changed since 1987 and is less than the compensation paid to governors in every other state as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. To match that $70,000 salary in 1987, Maine would have to pay the governor more than $160,000 today after adjusting for inflation.

The $130,000 salary recommended by the commission would lift Maine to 35th nationally in terms of gubernatorial compensation and put it on par with neighboring New Hampshire, which pays just shy of $135,000 a year. Additionally, the commission endorsed boosting the governor’s expense account from $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

“The commission finds that the Maine governor’s salary is embarrassingly low, suggesting a disrespect for the position and making Maine an outlier from the rest of the country,” says the report endorsed by commission members Monday.

Maine’s Constitution prohibits governors or state lawmakers from receiving a pay raise during their current term. That means neither the state lawmakers who would have to approve the salary adjustments nor Mills would benefit from the pay raises during their current terms.

Justices on Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court also are paid less than their counterparts in every other state, while District and Superior Court judges rank below all but one other state, according to salary data compiled by the National Center for State Courts.

The commission is recommending that salaries for District and Superior Court judges increase from $133,286 to $150,000 and that Supreme Judicial Court justices increase from $142,209 to $169,000. Additionally, the report endorses increasing the salary of the Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court from $164,424 to $184,000.

In order to encourage more judges to continue working, the commission also recommends increasing the per diem from $350 to $500 for “active retired judges” who are called upon to fill in temporarily or help address a backlog of cases.

“The commission believes that maintaining an independent judiciary is critical to a well-functioning democracy, and this salary adjustment better ensures that a broad range of qualified individuals are recruited and continue to serve,” the report states. “Increasing judicial salaries to a rank of 35th nationally would also bring them in line with where Maine ranks in terms of median household income.”

Maine’s median household income was $55,602 in 2018, ranking the state 35th nationally, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Vendean, the commission chairwoman, said Maine’s rankings for median and per capita income helped inform the pay levels in the group’s recommendations.

For legislators, the commission recommends increasing the total stipend paid during the two-year session from $25,444 to $32,000 as well as adjusting mileage and lodging reimbursement rates. Lawmakers are now paid 44 cents per mile up to $38 per day or can receive a lodging rate of up to $38 per day. The commission recommends a transportation reimbursement of 58 cents per mile or the federal rate, whichever is higher.

Unlike the governor’s salary, the stipend for lawmakers is adjusted every two years for changes in the cost of living.

Lawmakers directed the State Compensation Commission to examine the pay issue last year in order to offer independent recommendations on an issue that has become a political football. In addition to Vafiades, the other commission members were: Christine Brawn, former deputy director of Maine’s Bureau of Human Resources; Joyce Oreskovich, former director of the Bureau of Human Resources; Kay Rand, the longtime former chief of staff to former governor and now U.S. Sen. Angus King; and Tim Schneider, an attorney who formerly headed the Maine Office of Public Advocate.

Legislative leaders from both parties expressed some support for a modest pay increase for state lawmakers during the commission hearings, although opinions differed.

The commission’s proposal of $32,000 for two years is substantially less than what Rep. Chris Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, had included in the bill that eventually led to the long-dormant State Compensation Committee issuing its report. Babbidge had proposed paying lawmakers $23,500 a year, which he said could allow more working Mainers with mortgages and families to afford to serve in the Legislature.

Babbidge also had proposed increasing the governor’s salary to $141,000. But he will strongly support the report when it goes to the State and Local Government Committee.

“Honestly, the political difficulty of moving this forward is real,” Babbidge said. “So I would embrace these recommendations.”

Increasing the salary of Maine’s governor has been a perennial, bipartisan issue in Augusta.

Former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, introduced at least two bills to increase the salary of whoever succeeded him. LePage’s most recent bill, which died for lack of action at the end of the 2018 legislative session, proposed paying the next governor $150,000 a year and increasing lawmakers’ meals and housing allowances.

“I feel like a priest or a nun, you know. You go into poverty to serve the public,” LePage told a Maine radio show in February 2017.

Schneider, the commission member, said the goal was to ensure that Maine isn’t “an outlier” on either side of the compensation spectrum. And after reviewing levels in other states, it was clear that “Maine lags across the board” in what it pays public officials, he said.

There was some discussion on the commission about phasing in the proposed increases, especially for governor. Ultimately, Schneider said, that is the Legislature’s call to make.

“Our job was not to show how to get there – that’s job of the Appropriations Committee – but to make recommendations on what the salaries should be,” Schneider said.

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