AUGUSTA — Proposals by Republican Gov. Paul LePage to hike the salary of the next governor to $150,000 a year, increase pay for lawmakers and reduce members of the Legislature appeared poised for defeat Thursday.

Lawmakers on the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee split along party lines in a 5-5 vote after unanimously voting to delete provisions of the bill that would reduce the size of the Legislature by 61 lawmakers.

LePage wants the Legislature to ask Maine voters to amend the state constitution to reduce the size of the House of Representatives from 151 to 100 members, and reduce the Senate from 35 to 25 members. The proposal would cut the Legislature by about a third. In return, lawmakers’ salaries would be increased by 25 percent, moving their average base pay from about $9,000 a year to around $11,000.

Aaron Chadbourne, a senior policy adviser for LePage, said those changes would make for a more efficient Legislature for which it would be easier to pass legislation. Chadbourne said the pay increase for lawmakers would help attract more qualified candidates.

With three lawmakers absent from the panel Thursday, the final outcome of the vote could change as those lawmakers still have an opportunity to file their votes on the measure.

Majority Democrats on the committee voiced reservations about increasing the governor’s salary from $70,000 a year — the lowest among the 50 states — to more than double that amount, in part because of uncertainty about the impact the change would have on the retirement salaries of five former governors and LePage.

Under state law, the governor’s retirement is set at three-eighths of the amount of a current governor’s salary when the former governor reaches age 60, or upon leaving office. Under that provision, LePage will receive a retirement salary of $26,225.

Staff members for LePage told the committee the retirement amount for LePage and former Govs. John Baldacci, Angus King, Joe Brennan and Ken Curtis would not be changed by increasing the next governor’s salary, but committee members said they wanted official clarification from the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

State Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said that under current state law governors, in addition to salary, are given a $35,000-a-year expense account not subject to audit by the Legislature.

“Taken together that’s about $105,000,” Libby said. He said that figure does not include other allowances given to the governor, including the budget for the governor’s mansion, known as the Blaine House, or a food allowance and other funds a governor has available to offset living expenses.

“I think in that context, a low salary is not as low as we may at first understand,” Libby said.  

Beyond that, Libby said, the Legislature was already struggling with finding funding for a number of other priorities.

Among those were pay increases for other state employees including state troopers and public school teachers, he said.

Libby said minimum-wage workers were not being paid enough.

“So to carve out a pay increase for one member of the state government when we have all of those other unfunded issues is for me a reason to vote against this,” Libby said.

Others, however, said the salary increase requested by LePage was not for him but for future governors and they believed Maine’s low pay was “embarrassing” compared to the national average for a governor’s salary of $135,000.

“I think the governor has a tremendous amount of responsibility,” said Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, “a lot more than any one of us in this room have and he has stress that we probably can’t even begin to realize.”

Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, also spoke against the measure during a public hearing on the bill.

Tuell said he was opposed to increasing the salary of lawmakers and the governor and to reducing the size of the Legislature because that would further limit the representation and influence rural Mainers have in Augusta.

Both Tuell and Rep. Beth Turner, R-Burlington, said cutting the size of the Legislature would significantly expand the size of their already-large legislative districts.

“It would be a huge mistake,” Tuell said of reducing the size of the Legislature. He also said that for an average Maine worker, $70,000 a year is still a high salary.

But Rep. Larry Dunphy, an independent from Embden and sponsor of the bill, said increasing the governor’s salary would help attract higher-quality candidates to run for the office. Dunphy also noted that Maine last increased the governor’s base salary in 1987 when it jumped from $35,000 a year to the current $70,000 a year.

The 10 highest-paid members of LePage’s current staff all earn at least $10,000 a year more than the governor.

Dunphy said decreasing the size of the Legislature and increasing the size of legislative districts would not limit representation, as communications technology including email and telephones makes it easier for lawmakers to stay in touch with their constituents.

The outcome of the legislation and its final recommendations on the bill will be determined in the days ahead as the three absent committee members, two Democrats and one Republican, cast their votes.

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