AUGUSTA, Maine — The first conflict between Maine’s new Democratic legislative leaders and the Republican minority centers on how much to pay returning Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, Attorney General Janet Mills and Clerk of the House Millicent MacFarland.

Republican legislative leaders argue that state law requires the trio’s salaries be set as if they were “newly elected.” Democrats counter that precedent recognizing past service, including Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s recruitment of Cabinet members in 2011, would allow the returning officials to be paid the same salaries they earned two years ago rather than as new hires.

State law sets the salary for a new secretary of state and treasurer at $69,264, according to a Dec. 6 memo from David Boulter, executive director of the Legislative Council. The state does not make retirement contributions for constitutional officers, but they do receive a 5 percent salary premium, which would elevate the compensation for secretary of state and treasurer to $72,727.

The same statute would set the “initial appointment” salary for attorney general at $92,248. With the 5 percent premium, the compensation would rise to $96,860.

Dunlap, who served as secretary of state from 2005 until early 2011, was earning $83,745 when he left office. Mills’ compensation was more than $96,000, which reflects base salary plus the 5 percent salary premium. She served as attorney general for two years.

MacFarland earned approximately $116,000 when she left as clerk of the House in January 2011, according to Jodi Quintero, spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. A veteran of more than 30 years as a legislative clerk, MacFarland subsequently retired.

Democrats are considering setting the pay rate for House clerk at what MacFarland earned when she left two years ago, but she would be paid a fraction of that amount — no more than $700 per week — so as not to affect her retirement and health insurance benefits, Quintero said.

“She will only make about $37,000 per year if voted in at a higher rate because her compensation must be capped because of rules for retirement,” Quintero said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the annual mean wage for all occupations in Maine was $40,190 in May 2011. State law sets the governor’s annual salary at $70,000.

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.

On Wednesday, the same day a new Legislature with Democratic majorities took office, Dunlap, Mills and MacFarland won back their old jobs. Their salaries must be approved by the Legislative Council, an administrative body made up of the six Democrats and four Republicans who hold leadership positions in the 126th Legislature.

At the Legislative Council’s first meeting Thursday, the panel tabled action on compensation for constitutional officers, the state auditor and the clerk of the House and secretary of the Senate. The panel is scheduled to address the matter at a meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, the new House minority leader, says state law is clear.

“We are not talking about tradition or precedent; we’re talking about statute for a newly elected position,” he said. “The fact that someone previously held the position is not relevant.”

State law related to compensation for constitutional officers, the state auditor, House clerk and Senate secretary specifies what the pay should be “at the time of initial appointment.”

Quintero said Democrats seek further interpretation of the meaning of “initial appointment.” They point to a January 1985 opinion from Assistant Attorney General Cabanne Howard that “does indicate that when faced with a similar situation at the establishment of this law that the council chose to recognize prior service through compensation.”

Republicans note that the statute to which Boulter refers in his memo results from action taken by the 116th Legislature in 1993, eight years after Howard’s opinion.

“We are looking very closely at current practice and precedent,” Quintero said, labeling Fredette’s interpretation “one of convenience and not consistent with past practice.” She noted that when LePage hired commissioners for state agencies, he paid 10 of the 13 he enlisted “at the peak of their statutorily proscribed range” to reflect experience and expertise.

“It seems to me quite clear that the statute sets the salary,” Fredette, an attorney, said. “There has been a break in service, so you go back to the initial salary.”

If questions linger, Fredette suggested that the Legislative Council could seek an opinion from Schneider, the Republican attorney general who remains in office until early January. He also questioned why the Democrats’ leadership team had not presented a proposal to the GOP about what to pay the constitutional officers, state auditor, House clerk and secretary of the Senate.

Quintero said Democratic leaders continue to study the question and will have a proposal in time for Wednesday’s meeting.

“We’re talking about setting the salaries,” she said. “It’s not appropriate to negotiate in public about a salary issue. We have not made a decision yet after carefully considering the law.”

Fredette said the approach Democrats who lead the Legislative Council take on the compensation issue will signal the tone for the coming legislative session.

“The appearance of taking care of political people with, arguably, salaries inconsistent with Maine statute would be a troubling sign for the next two years ahead,” he said. “The statute lays the foundation. This is not just a conversation, this is a statute.”