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Maine Legislative Leaders at Odds over Salaries for Key Positions
12/11/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A partisan dispute has emerged in Augusta over salaries for legislative staff and other top positions, including secretary of state, attorney general and clerk of the House. Democratic leaders, who now hold majority status, are considering salary requests from incoming officers that are higher than guidelines set in the law, and Republicans are taking issue. A.J. Higgins reports.

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The 10-member legislative council, which is dominated by majority Democrats, recently replaced salaried Republicans in key positions with members of their own party. Several of the new incoming officers held those positions two years ago and want to be paid the same salaries they had when they left office.

Although starting salaries are detailed under Maine law, Democratic leaders are considering bumping up the pay, citing prior legislative service and experience. Republicans, including Senate GOP Leader Michael Thibodeau, of Winterport, object.

"It's in statute, it calls it out, and we're either a state that believes in rules and laws and we operate within them -- or we're not," Thibodeau says.

Thibodeau says Democrats can opt to use their majority vote to dismiss Republican concerns, but they may find themselves at odds with state law,and will be forced to explain their decision to Maine voters.

"I don't believe that the legislative council has the latitude to vary from that," Thibodeau says. "I think there are others that may feel differently, but I'm not even sure that given the fact that we're in the financial situation that we find ourselves in as a state, I'm not sure that's necessarily the right message, even if we did have that latitude."

So what kind of salary variances are we talking about? Janet Mills was being paid about $96,000 a year when she left office after two years of service in 2011, which Republicans claim is about $4,000 more than the starting amount set out in statute.

Matt Dunlap, who served as Secretary of State for six years, was earning just under $84,000. Under the law, he would get $69,000 dollars in his return to that same office. And Millie MacFarland, who held the position of clerk of the House for slightly more than a decade, would receive a little more than $83,000 annually under Maine law. When MacFarland left her job two years ago, she was making about $115,000 a year.

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport says Democrats need to think about the kind of tone they would be setting by authorizing high salaries for office holders at a time when many Mainers face financial hardship.

"I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone to say that we pay our governor $70,000, and we ought to pay a clerk of the House, who's really a part-time Legislature, $115,000," Fredette says. "I just find that to be a tough sell for anybody."

But Jodie Quintero, communications director for House Speaker Mark Eves, says discussions among Democrats are continuing. And she points out that Republicans themselves actually chose to ignore minimum salary rates set in 2010, when they swept into power.

"When the Republicans took control two years ago, they set their salaries higher than the statutory minimum in the law, because those individuals had prior service," Quintero says. "And that exactly what we're looking at - and whether or not prior service should be considered as set the salaries going forward."

Quintero says a 27-year-old advisory opinion from the Maine Attorney General's office supports the Democratic position - that the Legislative Council can pay the office holders an amount higher than the statutory minimum.



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