AUGUSTA – A veteran legislator is sponsoring a bill to increase his and other lawmakers’ pay. Under the measure, Maine voters would ultimately decide.

Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, is proposing the annual salary for legislators increase more than 50 percent, to $15,000 a year.

Lawmakers will be paid $11,384 for this year’s session, which is about six months long. For next year’s second session of the Legislature, which runs about four months, they will get $8,722, according to David Boulter, executive director of the Legislative Council.

That does not include benefits, such as health insurance coverage and daily per diem of $32 for food and either lodging or mileage while in session.

To give the 151 House members and 35 senators that raise would cost the state budget – now facing a $733 million deficit – $1.2 million a year.

Tuttle stressed his proposal would only happen if residents approve the raise in a November vote. The higher salary would begin in 2007 or 2008.

Testifying before the State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday, Tuttle said a legislative study in 1991 recommended annual pay for lawmakers be $18,000 a year. At that time, they were making $9,000 a year for the longer session and $6,000 for the shorter.

The recommendation never made it into legislation, but lawmakers voted themselves automatic cost-of-living raises based on inflation, never to exceed 5 percent.

This year and last, those cost-of-living raises were eliminated because of budget shortfalls. “The first thing we cut is ourselves,” Tuttle said.

He predicted voters would approve the raises “if they want a citizen Legislature, not just a Legislature for rich people.” There used to be more farmers, fishermen and small business people in office, said Tuttle, who recently returned to office after being termed out.

Sending out a raise referendum to voters would set a good precedent, Tuttle said, “because if we want to increase it again it would have to go to the people.” Most working people would understand the difficulty of making only $11,000 a year, he added.

Committee member Rep. Robert Crosthwaite, R-Ellsworth, said voters may not have a problem with the $15,000 salary, “but if they ask what kind of increase this is, we’re in trouble. This is a 62 percent increase.”

Rep. Sonya Sampson, D-Auburn, was the only other person to testify in favor of the raise. The current salary stops diversity in the Legislature, keeping younger people and women from office, she said.

“The pay was one of the reasons I almost didn’t come back this time,” Sampson said. “It really stops families from being able to contribute up here.”

Committee member Rep. Charles Harlow, D-Portland, asked Sampson if $4,000 more a year would really help diversity in the State House.

She responded, “I am right now the sole supporter of my family. Any additional amount would be helpful.”

It’s unknown how much support the measure has. The bill has nine co-sponsors, including House Speaker John Richardson, D-Bath.

Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, was skeptical, saying the state is facing tough fiscal times. “There hasn’t been any shortage of people running for the Legislature,” Nutting said. “We don’t get much salary, but we do get health care. That’s very important.”

The State and Local Government is scheduled to take up LD 317 in a work session Monday.

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