Responsibility of setting lawmakers’ raises could shift

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

Lawmakers’ fingerprints might no longer be on their own paychecks.

In bipartisan votes in the Democrat-led Legislature last session, lawmakers placed a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot that, if approved by voters, would have legislative salaries set by an independent council.

Legislators, like Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, pictured being sworn into office, would no longer be setting legislative pay if a constitutional amendment, set to go before the voters in 2016, is approved. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Legislators, like Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, pictured being sworn into office, would no longer be setting legislative pay if a constitutional amendment, set to go before the voters in 2016, is approved. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Lawmakers no longer would vote on their own pay. Currently, a state compensation council makes recommendations to the Legislature concerning pay.

The council recommended a pay increase for legislators this year, tying the raise to the governor’s salary. It recommended the governor’s pay, $120,000 per year, be given two 3 percent increases, with legislative salaries being set at 33 percent of the governor’s.

But lawmakers have a history of ignoring the council. Salaries of legislators — about $31,000 a year — haven’t been raised since 1999. By comparison, members of Congress make $174,000 a year.

Not that Minnesota lawmakers could ever just vote themselves a raise and plan on a big Saturday night. Under the state constitution, legislative pay increases affect the next Legislature, not the current.

Regardless, this is an incendiary topic.

“Salaries are (a) hot-button political issue because they are easy to demagogue,” University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute Political Science Professor Larry Jacobs said in an email.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, suggested concern over political fallout keeps salaries fixed.

“It’s very difficult around here to get them (lawmakers) to do that (vote to increase salaries), purely because of election politics,” Bakk said.

The Senate, not up for re-election until 2016, voted for a pay increase last session. But the House balked.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, called the constitutional amendment approach “a more appropriate way to go.”

Compensation Council Chairman Tom Fraser believes it’s less the amount of the raise than the idea of lawmakers voting on one that irks the public.

“It’s a built-in conflict. But it’s been built in for a long time,” Fraser said.

Former Sen. John Doll, DFL-Burnsville, was willing to sacrifice to serve in the Legislature.

“It was definitely not easy,” Doll said of the financial side.

His business, tile and stone contracting, isn’t one that you can be absent from, he said. And serving in public office is demanding.

“I would say it’s definitely more than a part-time job,” Doll said.

Fraser, whose father served in the Legislature, also views legislative service as demanding.

The workload has “increased dramatically” over the years, Fraser said.

Not that the Compensation Council is getting an earful.

“Nobody (lawmakers) came in and complained about the pay,” Fraser said.

One concern heard in discussing legislative pay is the perceived drying effect it has on the pool of potential candidates.

“I worry that we could end up with a situation when the hardworking up-and-comers can’t afford to serve, the wealthy treat it as a hobby and the schemers get in,” Jacobs said.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is also concerned.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is concerned that legislative pay is hurting the recruitment of candidates. Limmer is pictured in conversation on the Senate floor last session with Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake,  (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is concerned that legislative pay is hurting the recruitment of candidates. Limmer is pictured in conversation on the Senate floor last session with Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, (Photo by T.W. Budig)

“We’re having a hard time finding qualified people who want the job and will run for public office,” Limmer, a long-serving legislator, said. “And so our quality of legislator is beginning to wane.”

Not all lawmakers agree with this.

“I think that’s insulting,” House Tax Committee Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, said of the idea of the wealthy taking over the Legislature.

In general, the Legislature is made up of high-caliber people — many, highly educated, Lenczewski said. Thissen, for instance, holds a degree from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Chicago, she said. Former House Tax Committee Chairman Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, her former mentor, now a judge, is brilliant, Lenczewski said.

Lenczewski voted against the proposed constitutional amendment. Legislative pay doesn’t need to be increased, she said.

“I think we’ve had a pretty rough decade,” Lenczewski said of the state’s economy.

But Fraser views giving the state’s 201 legislators a salary increase as a small expenditure, given the size of the state budget.

In addition to salary, legislators get a per diem for living expenses during session and a possible diem for work off-session. Lawmakers living more than 50 miles from the state Capitol receive a lodging allowance. In the House, the allowance is up to $1,300 per month; the Senate allowance is slightly less. The House per diem is up to $66 per day. The Senate per diem is up to $86 per day.

Tim Budig can be reached at tim.budig@ecm-inc.com.

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