Later this year, below their choices for president, Congress, the Legislature and assorted local offices, Minnesota voters will be asked to vote on an amendment to the state’s constitution to create a commission with the power to raise the pay of Minnesota Representatives and Senators. Amendment backers say it’s an attempt to address a difficult problem: Pay for Minnesota’s legislators hasn’t gone up for years, but it’s politically difficult — and arguably a conflict of interest — for legislators to vote to raise their own pay. Opponents of the measure call it a de facto pay raise, and one that isn’t deserved.
One of the arguments often raised against raising legislators’ pay is that being a Minnesota representative or senator is not supposed to be a full time job. The Minnesota Constitution limits the length of meetings of the legislature in “regular session in each biennium” to “a total of 120 legislative days.” Additionally, the Constitution states: “The legislature shall not meet in regular session, nor in any adjournment thereof, after the first Monday following the third Saturday in May of any year.” The rest of the year, legislators were assumed to be holding down other jobs.
So what do our legislators do for their other jobs?
To answer that, MinnPost got in touch with Mike Schatz at the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. The good people of the Legislative Reference Library deserve the appreciation of all Minnesotans: they‘ve collected occupation data for every member of the Minnesota legislature, going back to the territorial legislature, standardized the self-reported jobs into consistent categories, and made it all available to search in a handy online tool.
Of course, in spite of these efforts, the records are somewhat incomplete; each year has some number of legislators who didn’t report an occupation or whose data is missing. The percentage of unknowns is quite high for, for example, the first legislature, but is generally pretty low after that — less than ten percent.
In comparing the employment of the various legislatures, we looked at percentages rather than raw numbers in order to account for changes in the size of the legislature. Additionally, if a seat was held by two people during a biennium, due to, for example, a retirement or a death, both legislators’ occupations are included. In addition, some legislators report multiple jobs and may fall into multiple categories. Finally, some legislators may have retired but still list their former occupations.
Here are some trends we found in a century-and-a-half of legislative occupation data:
The decline of the farmer-legislator
If there was a time when a large number of legislators would've been anxious to finish up the session in the spring in order to have time to get home plant their fields, that time is mostly past. In 1874, about half of legislators worked in agriculture, but that proportion dropped to about a fifth by the turn of the century and has been declining pretty steadily since the 1960s — perhaps a reflection of broader economic trends in the state, with fewer Minnesotans overall working in the agricultural sector.
In the current legislature, only nine legislators work in agriculture: Sens. Rod Skoe, LeRoy A. Stumpf and Tony Lourey and Reps. Paul H. Anderson, Paul Torkelson, Rod Hamilton, Chris Swedzinski, Gregory M. Davids and Debra Kiel.
The rise of the full-time legislator
In the early days of the state, the idea that someone would serve in the legislature as their exclusive job was basically unheard of. This continued for a number of years, until the mid-1970s when there was a jump in the number of legislators who listed their elected position as their main job.
It may be a coincidence, but 1974 was the first year since the early 20th century that candidates for the Minnesota House ran with party affiliation, rather than on a nonpartisan ballot (the Senate followed in 1976).
Fewer lawyers, steady supply of businesspeople
“Lawyer” is perhaps the classic other job for a legislature — after all, who better to write the laws than people who spend their days dealing with them? But actually, while lawyers still make up a healthy part of the legislature, their numbers have been on the decline.
Meanwhile, the percentage of legislators involved in “Business” has stayed pretty steady between a fifth and a quarter (it’s slightly up, thirty percent, for the current legislature). Business is an extremely broad category: it everything from insurance agents to small business owners and plenty of legislators who don't specify beyond “business.”
The role of the mediaFinally, if you’ll allow a bit of self-indulgence, a look at the fate of the media’s representation in the legislature:
Like business, media is a pretty broad category, including everything from pressmen to independent reporters to communications and PR professionals. But unlike business, it’s never been particularly well-represented in the legislature.
It’s kind of fun to imagine a reporter covering the legislature who is also a member of the legislature; it’d be completely unethical, but it might make those back-room deal negotiations a bit more interesting. But a more common representative of traditional media in the legislature has been newspaper publishers; in 1915-16, when 6% of the Legislature came from that industry, including five newspaper publishers.
There’s only one media member in the current legislature, Rep. Bud Nornes, who lists his occupation as “Communications.”
All the jobs
In case you’re curious, here’s a chart of all the legislator occupations (by percentage) for every legislature since statehood. It’s a bit of a mess, so we tried to pull out some of the most interesting insights above, but feel free to explore.
Clicking or tapping on entries in the legend will cause that occupation to toggle on or off in the chart, so you can focus in on just a few occupations. And remember to check out the Legislative Reference Library’s search tool.
Briana Bierschbach contributed mightily to this post.
Random Acts of Data is an occasional series by MinnPost news editor Tom Nehil. The goal: to answer questions about all things Minnesota using the vast amount of data at our disposal. If you have a question you’re wondering about, send an email to email@example.com with the subject line, “Random Acts of Data.”