Opinion

Time to give Maine lawmakers and judges a raise

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Members of the Maine Legislature, judges and the governor deserve a raise — not because they’re all great at their job, though many are, but because they are woefully underpaid for the difficult work that they do.

A recent story in the Portland Press Herald by reporter Scott Thistle, however, highlights the problem with giving these public servants a raise.

“Nobody here in their right mind is going to vote for some massive pay increase,” said House Majority Leader Matt Moonen of Portland.

The politics of raising pay for the governor, judges and legislators is terrible and to a weary public it looks like politicians are just trying to take care of themselves.

While completely accurate, the Press Herald headline makes the point: “Maine lawmakers eye ways to boost their own pay.” It’s loaded and leaves a bad taste, making the salary adjustments seem untoward.

Here are the facts: Maine lawmakers are poorly paid, earning on average about $13,000 a year, plus access to health care and daily expense reimbursements. And while the Legislature doesn’t meet full time, the demands of serving in office go far beyond the time spent during official legislative sessions.

Lawmakers serve on committees that often meet year-round. They are assigned to task force groups and working committees, and they are responsible for being out and about in their communities.

No trip to the grocery store is immune from a sometimes lengthy discussion with a constituent. Most nights there are community meetings, constituent events. And every two years, there are months of campaigning.

Their pay hasn’t changed for 15 years.

Maine’s judges are also the lowest paid in the nation despite the demanding and complicated nature of the job.

Similarly, Maine’s governor is the lowest paid in the country, earning only $70,000 plus a $35,000 expense account.

In one of the few policy areas where former Gov. Paul LePage and I agreed, he advocated for raising the pay for future governors (not himself), but was unable to persuade members of the Legislature to go along.

The governor’s salary hasn’t changed since 1987.

Former Gov. John Baldacci used to say about the hard parts of his job, “You ran for it, so you can’t complain.”

Through four years covering his administration as a reporter and four years as a member of his administration, I never once heard him complain about the job or its demands. That included his pay.

But the time has come for Maine to pay better.

Nobody becomes governor, a state representative or a judge by accident. It’s a choice and with that choice comes the reality of low pay, long hours and sometimes angry or disappointed voters.

But the low pay has consequences for all of us. It limits the types of people who can run and serve in our citizen Legislature. It tilts service toward the wealthy, the retired, the young and business owners with lots of flexibility. There are fewer types of voices in the halls of power.

Anyone who votes to raise the pay of future legislators or governors can almost guarantee political attacks. And you can bet that they’ll hear about it from their constituents, who at the best will say it’s not a priority and at the worst will assume graft.

Lawmakers have a tough job — yes, one that they have chosen — and they should be paid more in line with the level of responsibility that they have.

I’d like to see Democrats, Republicans and independents agree to put politics aside and raise the wages for the people who serve the state — even though they’re likely to face some heat for doing it.

Nobody should run for office expecting to get rich, but they shouldn’t have to choose between serving and taking care of their families, either. There’s no reason Maine should remain in the cellar when it comes to pay for governor, legislators and judges.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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