As Maine goes, so go the cheapskates.

To anyone who’s paid any attention to Maine state government in recent years, Monday’s release of a final report by the State Compensation Commission should not have come as a shock.

When it comes to paying our governor, lawmakers and judges, we Mainers aren’t exactly generous. In fact, the five-member commission found, our legislative pay scale “does not adequately compensate legislators for their dedicated public service,” our judges’ pay is “the lowest in the country,” and our governor’s annual salary, also at rock bottom nationally, is “embarrassingly low.”

“It makes us look so parsimonious. And I know some will sort of gravitate toward that as, ‘We’re good, frugal Yankees.’ But really, is it fair?” asked Marge Kilkelly of Dresden, who served in both chambers of the Legislature for 16 years, ending in 2002, and was one of 12 witnesses who testified to the commission during its four-month deliberations.

The obvious answer to Kilkelly’s question is no, it’s not fair. And the longer Maine goes without doing something about it, the more unfair it gets.

Since 1987, we’ve paid our governor $70,000 a year. Not only is that the lowest among all 50 states, it’s also $20,000 less than they pay the governor of American Samoa, who presides over only 55,689 people (fewer than Portland) and a land mass of 77 square miles (not much bigger than Buxton).

Our judicial salaries, ranging from $133,286 for district and superior court judges to $164,424 for the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, “are the lowest in the country and … (do) not reflect the respect and value that Maine holds for its judges and justices,” the commission found.

And our legislators? The paltry $25,444 we pay our state senators and representatives per two-year term, according to the commission, “likely has the effect of discouraging qualified Mainers from running for, or remaining in, the Legislature.”

That last part in particular resonates with Kilkelly, who well remembers what it was like as a single mother of three eager to represent Lincoln County back in the 1980s on the one hand, but on the other barely able to stay financially afloat – she shoehorned in two other jobs as time permitted.

“When I think of Legislative pay, I am immediately transported to a dark and stormy night, long, long ago,” Kilkelly told the commission in November. “I was getting home from work, late. My mother and three kids had been answering the phone nonstop since they had gotten home from school, and a frustrated kid pulled the door out of my hand just as I reached for it …”

“When are you going to get a real job?” her son asked her that night. “You are the only person I know who has a job where you have to pay money to get it, pay money to keep it and they don’t pay you to do it!”

Smart kid.

“Thirty years later, I don’t have an answer for him.” Kilkelly said with a chuckle Wednesday. “He was right.”

Another of Kilkelly’s not-so-fond memories illustrates how, clearly prescribed session schedules notwithstanding, the job of the legislator is never done.

One night, Kilkelly checked herself into her local emergency room with a throat problem – whatever was going on down there, she couldn’t speak without erupting into a coughing fit.

“So, don’t talk,” the doctor suggested as they tried to figure out the source of the problem.

“OK,” Kilkelly replied, well aware that keeping quiet “is never a simple thing for me.”

Next thing she knew, the same doc was asking her why parking had become so limited outside the Maine State Library. Because she knew the answer, she tried to explain the situation, precipitating another round of coughing.

“Finally, he said, ‘Oh, never mind,’” Kilkelly recalled. “And then he asked me another question.”

Kilkelly has heard the argument that if we up the pay for lawmakers, we’ll inch ever closer away from a part-time “citizen legislature” to a professional ruling class that loses touch with the people it’s supposed to represent.

Actually, she counters, the opposite is true – to a point: By holding in-session legislative pay at a level that barely exceeds Maine’s new $12 hourly minimum wage, Maine is actually limiting its legislative pool to those able to make the financial sacrifice.

“I don’t think you can have a citizen legislature if it doesn’t look like a town meeting, if it isn’t wait staff and doctors and nurses and people that are well-to-do and people that are working hourly,” Kilkelly said. “You have to have all of that together for it to be a citizen legislature. And when you don’t pay people enough to somewhat seamlessly go between their wage-paying job and their legislative service, you haven’t allowed those people to serve.”

The answer, Kilkelly said, is to find that “sweet spot” that reasonably compensates legislators for their time without ratcheting up the pay so high that you’re left with a bunch of opportunists who truly are in it for the money.

Ditto for Maine’s executive and judicial branches.

Before she moved into the Blaine House just over a year ago, Gov. Janet Mills made $124,315 as Maine’s attorney general. Meaning, she took a pay cut of $54,315, or 56 percent, to become the state’s chief executive.

And while $133,000 and change for most state judges may sound like a lot to many Mainers, the simple truth is that we’re lowballing our jurists relative to other states.

“The comparatively low compensation has made it more difficult to attract trial, defense, and business attorneys to serve,” the commission noted. “There also is evidence that the low compensation received by judges and justices has led some to leave the bench, with several individuals recently choosing to leave earlier than planned without seeking the opportunity to work as Active Retired Judges.”

Time will tell whether the commission’s recommendations – $130,000 for the governor, $32,000 per term for legislators and $150,000 for judges (supreme court justices and the chief justice would get $169,000 and $184,000, respectively) – can gain any traction as the report now makes its way to the Legislature.

Some lawmakers will be skittish at the idea of tinkering with pay at all – despite the fact that Maine’s Constitution prohibits the governor and legislators from getting a raise during their current terms. To them, voting for a pay raise is political suicide, plain and simple.

But in the end, this isn’t about them. Ultimately, the State Compensation Commission’s message is aimed at you, me and every other Mainer who appreciates the value of public service.

We need to stop being such tightwads.


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