Becoming a member of the state legislature is viewed as an act of service, a chance to make a difference and work to pass policies that will improve Mainers’ lives. But that rosy narrative also begs the question: Who can actually afford to serve?
In Maine, lawmakers are in office for two-year terms. But over the course of those two years, they make just $26,416 in base salary while receiving a mileage reimbursement rate that is lower than the federal level and a small lodging and meal per diem that doesn’t go very far. Maine is not the only state with a small salary for lawmakers, but many other places — ranging from Illinois to Alabama — pay legislators significantly more.
Elected officials and advocates say the low salary for Maine lawmakers has the effect of limiting who can afford to be a legislator, making it more likely that wealthy, retired people or those with high-paying, flexible jobs will serve and making it far less likely that younger people and those from more marginalized and diverse backgrounds will do so. That reality played out in the 130th Legislature, which took place from 2020-2022. As Beacon previously reported, many of the lawmakers serving in that legislature were business owners and retired people, with relatively fewer working class people in office.
This session, lawmakers are looking to change that paradigm by putting forward a bipartisan bill to raise legislators’ pay. The measure is being spearheaded by Rep. Laurie Osher (D-Orono) and Rep. David Woodsome (R-Waterboro).
Osher said in an interview that she and Woodsome both put in bill requests to raise legislator pay. Osher’s original proposal was to increase lawmakers’ salary to a level that would cover the cost of living. Woodsome, who did not respond to a request for comment from Beacon, proposed raising pay by a lower amount, Osher said.
After discussing the issue, Osher said the two came to the compromise of increasing lawmakers’ pay to $25,000 for the first year of the legislative session and $20,000 for the second year of the session, for a base salary of $45,000 over those two years instead of the current level of $26,000.
“It would be a significant increase,” she said.
Osher said the bill is important because the current rate of legislative pay means that those who make laws that impact all Mainers don’t always represent the demographic makeup of their communities.
“I love being the Orono representative, but my district has the highest percentage of young people of any district in the state,” she said. “Eighty percent of the people in my district are 35 and under, and I think those people who are 35 and under should be running and competing with each other for this spot. I’m not representative of my district.”
Rep. Mana Abdi (D-Lewiston), a 27-year-old in her first term in office, said the reality is that the current low pay rate makes it difficult for many young people — along with people of color and others from marginalized backgrounds — to envision serving.
“It’s a barrier,” she said. “It’s a ginormous barrier for anyone with interest in state service to be able to do it because it’s just simply not feasible for them. And we can’t be angry for people saying ‘I need to survive.’”
Abdi, who supports raising lawmakers’ pay and reimbursement rates, added that members can’t live off the income of serving in the legislature without having another full-time job (which Abdi has), being retired or being wealthy.
Another lawmaker struggling to make its work financially is Rep. Laura Supica (D-Bangor). Supica said in the time off between sessions of the legislature, she makes money as a waitress and bartender. During her first year in office, she said she was able to make ends meet. But by the second year of her first two-year term, Supica was strapped.
“It was really hard,” she said. “November and December were really hard, lean months. I’m fortunate that I am able to have credit cards, so I’m starting to put bills on credit cards in the hopes that the money will come. I’m living paycheck to paycheck.”
Supica (and other lawmakers) pointed out that serving in the legislature is a full-time job because of the need to be in Augusta so often, as well as ongoing negotiations with other lawmakers about various bills, committee work, and a host of other obligations. She said by the end of the session, she was forced to miss votes on some pieces of legislation because she had to start working a job that actually helped pay the bills.
“I’m making a lot less [in the legislature] than I would if I was just working,” she said, adding that she knows of another woman in her district who would make an excellent legislator in the future but likely couldn’t afford to serve.
Supica said she wants to review Osher and Woodsome’s bill to raise legislator pay before taking a stance but added that lawmakers should at least raise the current mileage reimbursement of 46 cents per mile to equal the federal rate and increase the $38 a day per diem that legislators get for lodging, which she argued is a pittance. There are some bill titles that appear aimed at raising the reimbursement rate, but it’s not yet clear what the proposed increase would be.
On the issue of raising legislators’ base salary, Supica said she’s open to having the conversation. But she worries about constituents’ reaction to lawmakers increasing their own salaries.
Still, Osher said potentially drawing constituents’ ire on the issue could be beneficial for Maine in the long-run.
“If all of us get voted out for voting for an increase, we will have improved the representation of the state, which is my goal,” she said.
One group working on that issue of representation in the legislature and other elected positions across the state is Emerge Maine, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. Ashley McCurry, the organization’s executive director, said the low pay legislators receive is one of the most consistent reasons women give for deciding not to run for that office.
“The reality is that you have a lot of women — smart, intelligent women — who just can’t take the pay cut,” McCurry said.
“We are absolutely doing a disservice to getting different voices at the table because the rate of pay is so low in the legislature,” she added.