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You don’t get to vote on your own pay. Why should legislators?

For an issue that is as important to the future of legislative service in Minnesota as this November’s constitutional amendment, the silence is surprising.

Taking the responsibility and the privilege of setting legislative salaries off of the House and Senate floor is appropriate.
Courtesy of MN Senate Media Services

Early voting for the 2016 elections starts on Friday, and along with a choice of candidates, Minnesotans going to the polls will see a constitutional amendment on their ballot: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to remove state lawmakers’ power to set their own salaries, and instead establish an independent, citizens-only council to prescribe salaries of lawmakers?”

Shannon Watson

Since the decision was made to put this question on the ballot back in 2014, there has been no advocacy organization or campaign committee formed to promote either side of the issue. There are no Vote Yes or Vote No campaigns happening. There are no lawn signs or TV commercials. No editorial boards have taken a position. For an issue that is as important to the future of legislative service in Minnesota as this one could be, the silence is surprising.

An enormous conflict of interest

This proposal is the most effective way to deal with an enormous conflict of interest that currently exists in our legislature. Taking the responsibility and the privilege of setting legislative salaries off of the House and Senate floor is appropriate. Giving this power to a citizen board will ensure that pay for our elected officials is reasonable, realistic, and representative of the will of the people.

The makeup of the council is designed with the express purpose of being a true citizens panel – half appointed by the governor and half appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme court, with representatives from each congressional district. Half will come from the majority party and half from the minority. The text of the amendment specifies the limitations: “None of the members of the council may be current or former legislators, or the spouse of a current legislator. None of the members of the council may be current or former lobbyists registered under Minnesota law. None of the members of the council may be a current employee of the legislature. None of the members of the council may be a current or former judge. None of the members of the council may be a current or former governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, or state auditor. None of the members of the council may be a current employee of an entity in the executive or judicial branch.”

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A current legislator implied on Twitter that an appointed panel of citizens wouldn’t be “accountable.” But accountability isn’t solely reserved for elected officials. You don’t need an election certificate to be accountable. Minnesotans are able to trust a panel of their peers – not capitol insiders, not elected officials – to examine evidence, compare the requirements to comparable states and jobs, and make a decision that’s in the best interest of all Minnesotans.

About structure, not pay itself

A vote of Yes doesn’t necessarily mean that legislative salaries will absolutely go up. This amendment is about the structure of how pay decisions are made and not the actual pay itself. That being said, I feel it is important to advocate for higher legislative salaries — 1) to attract qualified individuals who have other higher-paying opportunities in the private sector; 2) to increase competition for those offices; and 3) to increase equity within the legislature. Low salaries discriminate against people who can’t afford to serve. Making elected office an opportunity that is open to everyone is essential to democracy, and low pay that goes along with the office can be a huge barrier.

Sen. Kent Eken, the sponsor of the amendment, said, “I have always felt that money shouldn’t be the reason people run for office. But it shouldn’t be the reason that people leave public office, either. The pay should be adequate so that regular people have the opportunity to serve.”

Have you looked at the names on your ballot and thought, “We could do better”? Many current and former legislators have mentioned the hardship that low pay brings. And while part of the benefit of these positions are the honor of leadership and the opportunity to serve your community, we need to be aware of how the pay limits our choices. Low pay creates clumps of legislators at either end of the demographic spectrum – with large groups of people who are entry-level and can start their careers with low pay, or people who can serve in retirement. (The third group of course is people who are independently wealthy enough, or have a spouse who brings home enough bacon, for them to be able to serve regardless of pay.) But those three groups aren’t particularly representative of all Minnesotans.

One hundred and nine of our senators and representatives voted Yes to put this proposal to a vote of the people. Join them and help remove this conflict of interest from our legislative chambers. Leaving the constitutional amendment question blank is the same as a vote of No. Vote Yes.

Shannon Watson is the founder of Definitely Someday, a firm that helps normal people plan for a future run for office. She has 20+ years of experience in the political arena, working on local and statewide races in Kansas, Colorado and Minnesota, as well as working for the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Minnesota Senate. Shannon has a bachelor’s degree from Wichita State University and a master’s from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She lives in St. Paul.

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