AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative leaders Wednesday defused a debate regarding salaries for Maine’s incoming secretary of state, attorney general and House clerk that had the potential to become the first major flare-up of the new legislative session between the newly elected Democratic majority and the Republican minority.
Members of the Legislative Council voted unanimously to set salaries for incoming Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, Attorney General Janet Mills and House Clerk Millicent MacFarland at levels that consider them new to their jobs, without prior experience.
All three officers, however, have experience in the posts they will assume next month, and Democratic leaders last week considered assigning Dunlap, Mills and MacFarland the salaries they were earning two years ago when they were voted out of the same jobs.
Republicans argued that state law requires the officers’ salaries be set as if they were newly elected with no prior experience in the position. The state law governing their pay does allow the Legislative Council — an administrative body of 10 lawmakers elected to leadership posts — to raise the officials’ salaries for each year of “continuous service.”
Democrats countered that precedent, including Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s recruitment of Cabinet members in 2011, allows the returning officers to be paid the same salaries they earned two years ago, rather than be paid as new hires.
According to state law, a newly elected secretary of state and treasurer would earn $69,264, according to a Dec. 6 memo from the Legislative Council’s executive director, David Boulter. The state does not make retirement contributions for constitutional officers, but the officers receive a 5 percent salary premium, which would raise the secretary of state and treasurer’s total salary to $72,727.
The same law sets the salary for a new attorney general at $92,248, which would rise to $96,860 with the 5 percent premium.
Legislative leaders on Wednesday endorsed those salary levels for Dunlap and Mills.
“After careful consideration and consultation with our members, we have determined it appropriate to set the salaries for the officers at the initial rate,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. “We’re grateful for them for returning to service, and we will rely on their wisdom and experience as we move forward.”
Dunlap served six years as secretary of state, from 2005 until early 2011. He was earning $83,745 when he left office. Mills’ compensation was more than $96,000, which includes the 5 percent premium. She served two years as attorney general, from early 2009 to early 2011.
MacFarland earned approximately $116,000 when she left as clerk of the House in January 2011. A veteran with more than 30 years experience as a legislative clerk, MacFarland subsequently retired. State law sets the salary for a newly elected clerk at $76,627 or $83,533 annually.
MacFarland will earn a fraction of her full salary, as she is earning a pension as a retiree.
No direct precedent exists for dealing with whether to compensate Dunlap, Mills and MacFarland for prior time on the job, as no previous secretary of state, attorney general or House clerk has returned to office after a break in service.
When the GOP won majorities in both legislative chambers in 2010, Republicans Charlie Summers, William Schneider and Heather Priest replaced Dunlap, Mills and MacFarland, respectively.
At the Legislative Council’s first meeting Dec. 6, the panel tabled action on compensation for constitutional officers, the state auditor and the clerk of the House and secretary of the Senate.
Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport, the House Republican leader, endorsed the resolution of the salary issue.
“I appreciate the thoughtfulness and the way that we’re progressing on this,” he said.
Sen. Michael Thibodeau of Winterport, the Senate Republican leader, said later in a prepared statement that Democrats ultimately made the right choice in assigning the officers starting salaries, citing budget struggles ahead for lawmakers as they tackle a $35.5 million revenue shortfall this budget year and a $100 million budget gap in the state’s Medicaid program.
“While I am relieved that Democratic leadership ultimately made the right choice in the face of public outrage,” his statement said, “it is unfortunate that they were even considering paying political appointees more than the law allows during these hard economic times.”