For a small state, Maine grants notable powers to its governor. Unlike New Hampshire and Vermont, which have two-year terms, Maine ratified a constitutional amendment for a four-year term in 1957.

Also unlike New Hampshire, Maine abolished its Executive Council in 1977, making the governor the effective CEO of a Cabinet-style government where department heads can be dismissed. New Hampshire’s commissioners have five-year terms.

The governor’s agenda, especially when the same party controls the Legislature, is essentially that of lawmakers, too. This dominance over policy has only grown since legislative term limits were enacted in 1993, further limiting legislative initiative.

Yet Maine’s governor is paid barely half the annual salary of New Hampshire’s – at $70,000, the lowest of any state. Among New England states, Massachusetts is highest at $185,000, followed by Vermont – with less than half Maine’s population – paying $178,000; New Hampshire ranks fifth, at $134,000.

It just seems Maine’s governor has often been poorly paid, though there have been occasional dramatic adjustments.

The salary was set at $5,000 in 1915, remained there through war and depression until 1947, when it was doubled to $10,000, then increased to $15,000 in 1959, as Clinton Clausen took office. A raise to $20,000 benefited Ken Curtis, elected in 1966; back then legislators earned $2,000 per biennium, and Supreme Court justices received $18,000.

Amid high inflation, Joe Brennan received an increase to $35,000 in 1979, and the salary doubled again, to $70,000, for John McKernan in 1987. And there it has remained for 32 years. It may not be, as Paul LePage put it, a “vow of poverty,” but it’s still a bit embarrassing.

Why this extraordinary situation exists is a mystery, but an incident I witnessed in 2001 may provide a clue; how much elected officials are paid is quintessentially political.

I was walking with two Democratic senators back to the State House as they quickened their pace. I asked why, and was told they were voting on a pay commission’s report, which like its predecessors recommended a substantial raise.

Since John Baldacci, a fellow Democrat, was the odds-on favorite to become governor, and Democrats controlled both chambers, I figured it would be an easy sell. I was wrong. In no uncertain terms, the senators enumerated what they saw as the failings of Independent Angus King – and were definitely voting no.

When I suggested King wasn’t the issue, they ignored the point. Their irritation with the incumbent, entering the final year of his second term, overcame any logic about compensating future chief executives.

Another problem was that salary commissions reported haphazardly, meeting separately for the executive, legislative and judicial branches. This year, however, a new pay commission has produced a plan for all three branches – and added an intriguing new element.

Since a governor’s pay, under Maine’s constitution, can’t be increased while in office, only a successor can benefit. Pay commissions are only required to report in the third year of a gubernatorial term, by which time relations between lawmakers and governor – as we’ve seen – tend to fray.

Even though it was the first year when the commission reported in December, it made all its recommendations simultaneously, partly because there were no pay commissions during the LePage administration. Commission Chair Vendean Vafiades said, “We did this deliberately, and we all agreed. It just seemed that one report, covering all offices, would be the most helpful to the Legislature.”

Pointing out that the $70,000 governor’s salary would need to increase to $161,911 to match inflation, commissioners recommended $130,000 for whoever succeeds Janet Mills. For legislators, it recommended two-year base pay go from $25,000 to $32,000, with mileage rising from 44 cents to the federal rate of 58 cents.

Judicial salaries also rank last in the country, though judges still do better than the governor. Under the new recommendations, the Chief Justice would receive $184,000, associate Supreme Court justices $169,000, and Superior and District court judges, $150,000. If adopted, these judicial and gubernatorial salaries would rank 35th among the 50 states.

Whether this is, as they say, “politically possible” is still unknown, but the first formal hearing came Friday before the State and Local Government Committee, which could recommend legislation for the current session.

The package deal, and consideration of the governor’s pay long before the next election, could improve its chances – as may a growing realization that the state is remarkably stingy.

Though not all its occupants are equally popular, the office is respected by Mainers of all ideological stripes, who look to the governor as the state’s principal leader. We’ve doubled the salary before. Perhaps it’s time to do it again.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at [email protected]

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