Lawmakers on Tuesday heard testimony on a bill that would raise the pay of Maine legislators, which is paltry compared to many other states, in order to improve the quality of life for those serving and increase the chances that people from diverse backgrounds can run for office.
The bill, LD 1155, is sponsored by Republican Rep. David Woodsome of Waterboro and co-sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans in the legislature. In addition, Rep. Laurie Osher (D-Orono), one of the co-sponsors of the bill, told the State and Local Government Committee during a hearing on the measure Tuesday that 60 lawmakers have so far signed onto a letter advocating for higher pay for legislators.
LD 1155 would raise lawmakers’ pay to $25,000 for the first year of the legislative session and $20,000 for the second shorter session, for a total of $45,000 over the entirety of the session. If passed, the change would go into effect in December 2024, meaning it would apply to legislators elected in the November 2024 election.
As Beacon previously reported, 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 can 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 the vast majority of the lawmakers serving in that session were business owners and retired people, with relatively fewer working class Mainers in office.
Not a part-time job
Woodsome, the bill sponsor, noted during Tuesday’s hearing that the last legislator pay raise occurred in 1999. He said it’s time to update lawmakers’ salary, particularly given the workload those in Augusta face each session.
“The demand placed on legislators is no longer comparable to part-time employment but is surely equivalent to a full-time job,” he said. “Long days of hearings and floor work, followed by meetings and communicating with constituents in the evenings or on weekends, can often result in workdays in excess of 12 hours.”
Woodsome, a former teacher, added that after serving for eight years in the legislature, he had to start dipping into his retirement funds and savings to get by.
Osher said she has also faced financial stress because of the low pay provided to lawmakers, telling the committee that she lost a significant amount of income when she started out due to the time she needed to spend at the State House. Other lawmakers have told similar stories.
Too many lawmakers have had to choose between “our legislative work and our bills,” Osher said.
“Our government works best when everybody has a seat at the table, but right now that’s just not the case,” she added.
Osher had originally considered introducing her own bill this session to raise legislator pay to a level that would cover the cost of living. However, after speaking with Woodsome, she said the two came to the compromise, which was turned into the policy put forward in LD 1155.
Former legislators say current pay rate is a struggle
The committee also heard Tuesday from former legislators who declined to run for reelection because the pay for lawmakers is so minimal. Genevieve McDonald, a Democrat who served for four years but didn’t run again in 2022, said in 2021, she made just $14,699 for her work in the legislature but spent $14,250 during that year on child care costs alone. On top of that, McDonald said she faced a variety of other expenses from day-to-day life.
“Maine will not have a truly citizen legislature until more people can afford to serve. Lawmakers should be paid a salary that will do more to bridge the gap between altruism and financial stability,” she said, adding that “increasing legislative salaries would result in better outcomes for members in terms of time and mental capacity, and in turn, better outcomes for their constituents.
That message was echoed by another former lawmaker, Democrat Scott Cuddy, who also didn’t run for reelection in 2022. Cuddy told the committee that with two kids, costs from owning a home, and prospect of needing to care for an aging parent, he simply couldn’t afford to continue as a legislator.
Cuddy said he believes he was one of — if not the only — construction worker in the Maine House during the session that ended in 2022. Such voices are important when making policy, he said, and are currently underrepresented in the legislature.
“Please help make it possible for regular working Mainers to be able to serve in those chairs,” he told lawmakers. “Help an ironworker, a plumber, an electrician, or a carpenter bring their voice into the process without sacrificing financial stability.”
Another supporter of the bill, Shaun Donnelly of Arundel, told lawmakers that he has volunteered on several legislative campaigns and seen the work that goes into getting elected as well as serving effectively in Augusta. While Donnelly said the pay rate proposed in LD 1155 would still undervalue the work of lawmakers, he argued it would “open the door to public service for many less fortunate Mainers.”
The legislator pay bill will be further considered by the State and Local Government Committee during a work session in the coming weeks.