AUGUSTA — Democratic lawmakers face the dicey political question of whether to grant higher salaries to three high-level political appointees despite roughly $1 billion in shortfalls in present and future state budgets.
No proposal has been drafted, but the spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said legislative leaders are considering paying incoming Attorney General Janet Mills, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and House Clerk Millie MacFarland what they were earning for those jobs when they were replaced by Republican appointees in 2011.
Mills was earning about $96,000 a year. Dunlap was being paid $83,744 when he left, while MacFarland was making about $115,000. On Dec. 5, the Democratic-controlled Legislature voted to return all three to office.
If lawmakers follow state law, which sets the salary for each position, Mills will be paid about $92,248 a year once her term starts in early January, Dunlap will earn $69,264 and MacFarland will get $83,532.
Those are the salaries for the current attorney general, secretary of state and House clerk.
Taken together, the increases for the three positions would equal close to $50,000 a year, with the clerk getting the biggest increase.
That could prove politically hazardous for Democrats, who won the legislative majority after being swept from power two years ago by Republicans who championed limited government spending.
Many Mainers have seen their paychecks stagnate or even decline since the recession hit in 2008. The annual median household income in Maine was about $47,000 from 2007 to 2011, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Gov. Paul LePage is expected to order $35 million in immediate, across-the-board cuts in state departments’ spending.
And lawmakers face a projected $100 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services and an estimated $880 million revenue gap in the next two-year budget.
Jodi Quintero, spokeswoman for Eves, said state law offers precedents that would allow Democrats on the Legislative Council — the Legislature’s administrative committee — to increase the salaries based on experience. She said no decisions have been made.
“It’s not about (raising) salaries,” Quintero said. “All of the people we’re talking about are returning to their positions that they held for a long time. We’re considering whether those people should be compensated based on their experience, and if that’s appropriate.”
The Republican majority in the last Legislature paid the House clerk and the state’s constitutional officers according to salary bands prescribed by state law. However, Republicans on the Legislative Council voted in 2010 to pay Heather Priest, the House clerk, the highest salary allowed by law.
Priest, who had no experience, was paid $83,532 during her first year. Lawmakers could have paid her $76,627.
Quintero noted that Gov. Paul LePage hired 10 of his 13 department commissioners at the top of their pay range.
LePage has said that he’s had trouble luring top talent because the state’s salaries are too low.
MacFarland worked in the House Clerk’s Office for 32 years before losing her position. Dunlap was secretary of state from 2005 until early 2011. Mills was the attorney general from 2009 until early 2011.
Each one started at the salary prescribed by state law and received step raises through the years.
The next state treasurer, Neria Douglass, who has never held the job, is expected to be paid $69,264 a year, the same as outgoing Treasurer Bruce Poliquin.
The same is expected for Pola Buckley, who was just elected state auditor, which has a starting salary of $81,566.
Democrats hold six seats on the nine-member Legislative Council, which will meet Wednesday to authorize salaries for the House clerk, the secretary of the Senate and Maine’s three constitutional officers: treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state.
The council, composed of leaders in both chambers, was scheduled to vote on the matter last week but tabled it, indicating ambivalence among Democratic leaders.
The attorney general acts as the state’s top lawyer, while the secretary of state oversees the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, state elections and corporations.
The House clerk manages a 10-person staff that supports the 151-member House. In addition to the printing and distribution of bills, the clerk oversees parliamentary proceedings during the session.
MacFarland retired after leaving the position in 2010. She was diagnosed in 2006 with cancer, for which she still receives treatment.
Quintero said McFarland’s situation is complicated because of connections between her salary and her health and disability insurance.
Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said raising salaries could set the tone for the session. He said it’s not yet clear whether the increases would be legal, and Republicans may seek an opinion from the current attorney general, Republican William Schneider.
“We don’t want to go back to business as usual now that Democrats are back in the majority,” he said. “The Democrats have the votes, but it’s a matter of whether doing this is the right thing to do.”
Lawmakers are paid about $23,000 over each two-year session.
LePage is the nation’s lowest-paid governor, earning $70,000 per year.
In 2006, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci vowed to veto a proposal by the Legislature to increase the governor’s salary to $102,000, about three times the state’s family median income at the time.
Baldacci, who would not have benefited from the bill, argued that it would be inappropriate to raise the governor’s salary in a poor economy.
Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: