Lawmakers push off pay-freeze bill until 2014

The State House in Augusta.
The State House in Augusta. Buy Photo
Posted May 22, 2013, at 8:15 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — State lawmakers Wednesday iced a bill that would have docked lawmakers’ pay if the Legislature failed to reach a budget agreement and Maine government shut down.

Despite saying they favored the concept, offered by state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, members of the State and Local Government Committee voted 5-4 to put off dealing with the bill until the second half of the current legislative session, which starts in January 2014.

That move ensures lawmakers will get their full pay for 2013 and 2014, even if they fail to negotiate a budget deal that’s passed into law.

Provisions in the Maine Constitution require a balanced budget be in place by June 30 every two years or all but the most essential government agencies, such as the Department of Public Safety, must close until a budget is enacted.

Russell’s bill would have cut lawmakers’ pay, starting in 2014, for each day of a shutdown, were one to occur this year. They would still be paid, but their pay would be cut on a pro-rated basis for every day the government was shut down.

Several on the panel said they didn’t run for state office for the money. Maine lawmakers are paid about $22,000 each for a two-year term. They receive about $13,000 the first year, which includes a longer lawmaking session, and about $9,000 the second year.

Committee members said they supported the concept behind Russell’s bill, but they balked at rushing the measure through without a better understanding of how it would work. They also said they didn’t want the bill to be a reaction to any current budget discord or to send a signal that either majority Democrats or minority Republicans had any intention of shutting down the government in 2013.

The last time that happened was in June 1991, when a $3.1 billion budget proposal offered by Gov. John McKernan was hitched to broad reforms in the state’s workers’ compensation system. McKernan was in opposition to a $300 million tax expansion offered by Senate Democrats in the majority, while Democrats were opposed to the workers’ compensation reform offered by McKernan and minority Republicans, according to The Associated Press.

Days before budget negotiations collapsed, McKernan issued an emergency order allowing some critical state agencies, including the Department of Corrections and Maine State Police, to remain open. That shutdown lasted 16 days before the sides came to a compromise.

This year, lawmakers are dealing with a $6.1 billion budget proposal from Gov. Paul LePage, but Democrats are deeply opposed to some of the spending cuts LePage is proposing, including the elimination of more than $200 million in state revenue-sharing for local cities and towns. LePage has said repeatedly he’s opposed to increasing taxes.

LePage has also said one of his top priorities is paying off $484 million in debt the state owes 39 hospitals statewide. Democrats say they want to ensure Maine expands its Medicaid program to take advantage of a new federal law that will cover the cost of adding nearly 70,000 working poor to the state’s low-income health insurance program known as MaineCare.

Russell’s pay bill is more about sending a message than it is about saving the state money, she said.

“It’s called ‘skin in the game,’” said Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, who supports Russell’s bill. “Right now, legislators do not have a financial incentive to do their job and provide political leadership and have the political will to make a decision by deadline.”

Chenette made an animated appeal to his colleagues to move forward with the bill this session, despite any shortcomings, but he too later agreed to put that action off until next January.

Russell said she was disappointed the committee didn’t move the bill forward this session but was pleased they didn’t vote to kill it outright.

“I think it is essential that average, everyday people recognize [lawmakers] have some skin in the game and that we have consequences for poor actions,” Russell said.

The current political climate in Augusta didn’t bode well for a clean ending to the current session or an easy budget deal between Republicans and Democrats, Russell said.

“My hope is that we do the right thing, but the rhetoric in the media right now is not suggesting the right outcome,” she said.

Other committee members, including Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, said they supported the bill, but the reality was the members of the committee ultimately had very little say as to when and how a budget deal would be brokered between the parties’ leaders.

Hayes noted that lawmakers, were they required to come back into a special session to reach a budget deal to keep government open, wouldn’t be paid their salaries. Under the rules of the Legislature, they could receive up to a $100 per-diem allowance for meals and travel during a special session. But they could also extend the regular session by as many as 10 days without pay, she said.

“I think it’s a worthy effort,” Hayes said of Russell’s bill, “although, I’m still troubled that most [legislators] don’t get to make that decision and I don’t want to be punished for someone else’s judgment that I’m expected to back up.”

Others on the panel said they hadn’t been privy to discussions in party caucuses that would indicate party leaders on either side of the aisle had any intention of not reaching a budget compromise by the end of June.

“Maybe you guys know something I don’t know, that we are not going to finish the budget in time?” asked Rep. Sharri MacDonald, R-Old Orchard Beach. “Because I know in our caucus we’ve talked specifically about making sure it’s done on time and doing what it takes to get it done on time, I believe.”

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