AUGUSTA — Democratic legislative leaders backed off Wednesday on granting higher salaries to three high-level political appointees.
The decision effectively ends a brief but potentially politically hazardous move to pay incoming Attorney General Janet Mills, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and House Clerk Millie MacFarland the same salary each earned when they held the positions in 2010.
Democratic leaders had initially considered re-establishing the pay levels for all three, which would have yielded a cumulative increase of $50,000 above the entry-level wage prescribed in state law.
That move had the potential to backfire on the party, with the state facing an estimated $1 billion shortfall in the present and pending state budgets.
House Speaker Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said it was appropriate to pay the two constitutional officers and the House clerk the entry-level wage despite their previous experience.
“After consultation with our members and in consideration of the ongoing news regarding our state’s fiscal outlook, we’ve determined it is appropriate and reasonable to set the salary levels at the incoming rate,” Eves said. “We’ve made this choice after extensive and thoughtful consideration. We are grateful to them for returning to state service and we will rely on their wisdom and experience as we move forward.”
The 10-member Legislative Council approved the salaries with a unanimous vote. The council sets the salaries for the constitutional officers, the House clerk and the Senate secretary.
“We are fortunate to have such a talented and dedicated group of people serving our state,” said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “We look forward to working together.”
Mills was earning about $96,000 a year when she left the job in early 2011. Dunlap was being paid $83,744 when he left, and MacFarland was making about $115,000.
On Dec. 5, the Democratic-controlled Legislature voted to return all three to office.
State law 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.
MacFarland said Tuesday that she will earn a fraction of her full salary because she is earning retired disability pay that caps her earnings at about $37,000.
The salaries set Wednesday are identical to the current attorney general, secretary of state and the former House clerk elected by Republicans in 2010. The council also adopted the entry-level salaries for the next state treasurer, Neria Douglass, who has never held the job, and incoming state auditor Pola Buckley. Douglass will earn $69,264 a year and Buckley will earn $81,566.
Republicans had argued that paying the political appointees their old salaries would be illegal and inappropriate given the state’s economic situation.
Gov. Paul LePage is expected to order $35 million in immediate, across-the-board cuts in state departments’ spending. Lawmakers also 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.
“While I am relieved that Democratic leadership ultimately made the right choice in the face of public outrage, it is unfortunate that they were even considering paying political appointees more than the law allows during these hard economic times,” said Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, the Senate minority leader.
Dunlap said Wednesday that he would have been happy to receive the additional $14,000 had the council paid him his 2010 salary. However, he said he respected the council’s decision.
“Maybe those resources can be used for public benefit,” he said. “It broke every bone in my body to leave the job in (2010) and I never thought that I was coming back. … It’s not always about what you get paid.”
MacFarland, who retired in 2011, echoed that sentiment.
“I didn’t come back here for the money,” she said. “I wanted to come and serve the House and get the office up and running. It’s my long-term goal to train a successor, and that’s what I plan to do.”
Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: