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How to go the right way on legislator pay

The Minnesota State Senate passed their version of the  State Government omnibus budget bill on Tuesday by a narrow 34-32 margin.  5 DFL members defected from the rest of the majority, primarily over the issue of pay raises in the bill.  Under the provisions of the bill, the Governor would get a raise from $120,000 to $128,000 effective in 2016 (and would be adjusted for inflation every year after that), while legislators would have their salary pegged as 1/3 of the governor’s pay.  That would represent over a $10,000 raise over the current legislative salaries of $31,140.  Commissioners of state departments would also see higher pay as well, going up to 133% of the Governor’s salary.

In addition to their base salaries, legislators also earn a per diem for their legislative activities, and a housing allowance of $1,200 per month is available for those who live more than 50 miles away from the State Capitol.  Per diem for most legislators runs about $10,000 per year.

There are some legitimate reasons to consider a pay increase for state legislators.  (And, in fact, despite the largely party-line vote, there is broad bipartisan agreement that a pay increase may be justified.)  First, they haven’t  received a pay increase since 1999, meaning that, adjusted for inflation, legislators are being paid about 30% less than they were then.  Second, there is concern that low legislative salaries may be a barrier to attracting people to run for office or retaining them while they are there.  This may be a factor in the increasing age of the Legislature, which in the House has increased by five years since 2000.  Third, the demands on our officially part-time Legislators are increasing, as the job continues to edge closer to being a full-time year-round commitment with yearly special sessions and fall/winter committee meetings on top of normal constituent outreach and service.

While those are all valid, increases to legislator salaries shouldn’t come without some reform to make the process more rational. (And let’s not forget the dreadful optics of increasing their own pay while the minimum wage languishes and state compensation rates for nursing home and home health care workers have stagnated for years.)  Here’s three specific reforms we should get in return for opening the door to increasing legislative salaries:

  • End in-session per diem:  Legislators are eligible to take per diem seven days a week while the Legislature is in session (even if there is no official business on that day).  As a result, the per diem requested by most legislators during the session tends to be pretty tightly distributed.  There’s little value added to administering such a process — let’s just increase legislative salaries to reflect an average number of days the legislature is in session per year and leave per diem to only cover days outside of the normal legislative session.
  • Standardize per diem rates for the House and the Senate:  Currently, State Senators get a higher per diem rate than House members.   The purpose of a per diem — to compensate a legislator for expenses incurred — doesn’t change based on the body the Legislator serves in.
  • No pay for legislators or the Governor if a budget is not reached:  If a state budget is not agreed to by the start of the fiscal year, then legislators and the Governor don’t get paid for the time until a budget is reached.  No salary, no per diem for the special session.  And when the budget does finally get passed, they don’t get that money retroactively.

To take a more radical approach, Minnesota could adopt a compensation plan similar toOhio’s, which ditches the per diem and allowance model altogether and has a set schedule of pay based on a legislator’s role (leadership positions get bumps in pay).  Either way, it’s not too much to expect some reform to come along with any increase in salary for legislators or the Governor.

(It should be noted that the House DFL majorities have come out firmly against pay increases, leaving them out of their version of the State Government bill, which will likely set up some interesting Conference Committee discussions to hash out a final version of the bill.)

This post was written by Sean Olsen and originally published on Brick City Blog. Follow Sean on Twitter: @sean_olsen

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Kevin Powers on 04/19/2013 - 11:13 am.

    Rationalize per diems

    The current per diem schedule was passed as a work around to get a raise without voting for a raise. That is why there are different payment levels for the two legislative bodies. Keep in mind that per diem payments are factored in for calculation of pension benefits. I would like to see expenses for legislators reimbursed on the same basis as other state employees.

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