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Minnesota’s legislators: Are they underpaid?

Courtesy of MN House Public Information Services/Andrew VonBank
The state Compensation Council is recommending that the annual salary of state legislators be increased from $31,140 to $40,890 in 2015 and that it be tied in the future to the salary of the governor.

State legislators are a lot like the coaches and managers of professional sports teams. They establish the direction of the team, but receive less pay than virtually all of their players. And if things go wrong, they’re often the first ones fired!

The state Compensation Council — a 16-member group representing the three branches of state government — is recommending that the annual salary of state legislators be increased from $31,140 to $40,890 in 2015 and that it be tied in the future to the salary of the governor. If approved by the Legislature, it would be their first salary increase since 1999.

Former Senate Minority Leader Duane Benson, R-Lanesboro, himself a former NFL linebacker, says the comparison between legislators and coaches is valid.

“Members walk into the Senate chamber or the House chamber, and almost all of their employees are on a higher pay scale,” Benson says. The same is true for most employees in the executive and judicial branches, right down to the entry-level positions.

Few of us have the “luxury” of being able to set our own salaries. However, based on the history of the Minnesota Legislature and others around the country, it’s much more of a curse than a blessing.

For obvious political reasons, legislators are reluctant to vote to raise their own pay — it’s certain to be mentioned prominently by their opponents in the next election campaign.

Campaign ads

Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College, says the new DFL majorities would be taking a huge political risk if they approve the Compensation Council’s recommendation. “Can you see the campaign ads? ‘My opponent increased his pay by 33 percent. How are you doing? When was the last time you received a 33 percent raise?’

“You’d be handing the GOP a potent issue for the next election cycle, particularly in more conservative and outstate districts,” Schier says. “Think about incomes in rural areas — incomes are low out there and unemployment is high. It’s pretty easy to make the argument that legislators already are getting paid a lot of money.”

Past legislatures have dealt with this problem by providing themselves with less visible, back-door increases in compensation. These include:

  • Giving themselves per-diem expense payments — $86 a day for senators and $66 a day for House members — for each day the Legislature is in session, for travel days and for attending committee meetings between sessions. In 2012, most senators collected $7,000 to $10,000 in per diems and most House members received $5,000 to $8,000.

  • Granting outstate members housing allowances of up to $1,200 a month year-round (with a two-year maximum of $21,600 for House members). This nifty perk has enabled some outstate members to invest in houses and condos in the metro area.

  • Reimbursing themselves for mileage, travel and communications expenses such as cell phones and Internet service (to a maximum of $125 a month for senators and $75 for House members).

Still, even $41,000 a year in salary and per-diems is not a lot of money for a challenging job dealing with a complex array of issues and a state budget approaching nearly $38 billion per biennium.

Comparative salaries of Minnesota elected officials

Source: State Compensation Council
County commissioners in the large counties have not been shy about bumping up their salaries, with Hennepin County commissioners now drawing $90,276 a year and Ramsey County commissioners collecting $84,048.

The demands of the job certainly approach or exceed those of local elected officials in the metro area. County commissioners in the large counties have not been shy about bumping up their salaries, with Hennepin County commissioners now drawing $90,276 a year and Ramsey County commissioners collecting $84,048. Minneapolis City Council members receive $80,345 and St. Paul council members $56,022.

Part-time job?

Former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, says a big part of the problem is that legislative service is viewed as a part-time job. Members of the public look at it and “think a part-time job that pays some $30,000 sounds like a pretty good deal,” he says.

“It’s difficult for the public to understand that it’s really not part-time,” Moe says. “It’s a 150-percent of the time job for five or six months of the year, and about a 75-percent of the time job the rest of the year. It’s more than a full-time job and you kind of build your life around it.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCLS), a professional organization serving both legislators and legislative staff, includes Minnesota in a group of 23 states where legislators spend about two-thirds of their time working at their jobs. Among these states, Minnesota’s total legislative compensation – including salary and per diems – is slightly above the $35,326 average for this grouping.

But Morgan Cullen, who tracks legislative compensation for the NCSL, says legislative pay has not kept pace with the demands of the job, particularly as the economy worsened. “Most legislators have foregone salary increases in recent years” and at least five states even reduced compensation, he says.

Only a few large states pay salaries approaching levels common for professional or managerial positions in the private sector, according to the NCSL. California leads the way at $95,300, followed by Pennsylvania at $82,000, New York at $79,500 and Michigan at $71,700.

Like Minnesota, most legislatures use back-door methods such as per-diems to bolster their compensation. Rates of $100 to $170 a day are common (though those states may not have a generous housing allowance such as Minnesota’s).

The Ohio Legislature has a refreshingly direct approach. It pays a salary of $60,583 per year, with extra money for leadership positions. It provides no per-diem payments, meal or housing allowances when lawmakers are in session.

Paying a higher salary and eliminating per-diems could reduce the incentive to hold meetings just so members can get paid, which has helped fuel the movement toward a full-time legislature in Minnesota.

Many people genuinely feel called to public service. Still, even legislators have to put food on the table. Minnesota’s modest legislative pay would seem to limit service to young people just starting their careers, older people with retirement income, people whose spouse has a good job and the independently wealthy.

Can't stay on

During his years as caucus leader, Benson says, “I had legislators — really good ones — come to me and say, ‘I can’t afford to do this anymore,’ and they quit. You wouldn’t allow that to happen in any other field.”

“It was never a reason for someone not to run,” says Moe. “But it was a reason for some to decide not to stay.”

eken portrait
Sen. Kent Eken

Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, a member of the Legislature for the last decade, has a proposal that would attempt to take the politics out of the legislative pay issue.

Eken has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would create a new bipartisan Compensation Council, with eight members appointed by the governor and eight appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, to set legislative salaries.

In Eken’s view, his proposed amendment addresses the “conflict of interest problem” inherent in the legislative pay issue. “We shouldn’t be spending our time here debating what our pay should be,” he says.

Eken says he succeeded in gaining House approval of such a proposal in 2008 while serving in that body, but that it failed in the Senate. This time, he hopes both houses will agree to put the amendment on the ballot in 2014.

According to the NCSL, four states have commissions that are empowered to set legislative salaries and another eight have commissions that can implement pay increases unless they are vetoed by the legislature.

Legislative compensation methods

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Source: National Conference of State Legislatures
According to the NCSL, four states have commissions that are empowered to set legislative salaries and another eight have commissions that can implement pay increases unless they are vetoed by the legislature.

“I have always felt that money shouldn’t be the reason people run for office,” Eken says. “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.”

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/24/2013 - 10:12 pm.


    It makes sense that a county commissioner is paid more since the job is full time and they are one of a maybe a 7 or 9 member board. As one of 250 plus, the value of one individual legislator decreases. One could say that members of the minority party are worth even less. Given the large number of Representatives and Senators who won’t let go of their positions until we pry their cold dead bodies out from behind their nameplates I say that the supply and demand method of payment is working just fine.

  2. Submitted by Kim Millman on 03/25/2013 - 08:42 am.

    They need more pay and an acknowledgement that it is full-time

    The members of the legislature have been operating under the myth that it is a part-time job for far too long. I disagree with Roger Moe. The pay has been a reason for some very good candidates not to run, they’ll just never admit it publicly. If the average citizen knew what sacrifice these people make to both run for office and represent their respective districts, they would agree that they are woefully underpaid.

    This is not a partisan issue. No matter what side of the isle you gravitate toward, we should all want the best DFLers, Independents and Republicans at the legislature. If there is no raise in pay, the pool of potential candidates continues to shrink every election cycle.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 03/25/2013 - 09:56 am.

    So, here’s the deal.

    Cut the size of the House and Senate in half, double the pay of the surivors, reduce and equalize the per diem and limit per diem to those who live more than 45 minutes from the Capitol.

  4. Submitted by Evelyn Johnson on 05/07/2018 - 11:02 am.

    Let’s Make A Deal

    Interesting perspectives

  5. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 03/25/2013 - 10:44 am.

    I’m surprised at how stubborn people are about raising their salaries. I doesn’t matter how much we don’t like them; in fact, we should raise their salaries *because* we don’t. What we pay these legislators is a drop in the bucket of the overall state budget, which *they* set. If we could attract slightly better candidates with a little more money, who made better and more studied decisions, or if they were slightly less prone to corruption, they could potentially save that amount many times over. Complaining about paying them $40k a year is short-sighted.

  6. Submitted by David Frenkel on 03/25/2013 - 11:15 am.

    Public Service not a career

    Being a politician should be a public service not a career move as many politicians see it. There have been all kinds of highly paid federal employees who have quit 6 figure jobs because they needed to make more money for a variety of reasons. There are plenty of millionaires in the US Congress and it certainly hasn’t help improve their performance.

  7. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 03/25/2013 - 11:48 am.

    you get what you pay for

    It’s time we recognized that legislators are as–and often even more important–than many CEOs. Why is it in a democracy we let CEO’s earn millions, including their perks, but we are stingy when it comez to public officials who determine the future of this state. Legislating for millions of people ought to be considered a full time job with awesome responsibilities and be paid decently. It may well be that an independent commission to set state officials’ salaries is needed. While this is being discussed, however, it’s time the legislators–as well as the governor and state commissioners–had a raise. After all, if we don’t like the job they are doing, we can fire them next election.

  8. Submitted by Barbara Gilbertson on 03/25/2013 - 12:55 pm.

    Leave No Legislator Behind

    Pay increases linked to performance. Bipartisan (bwahahahaha) panel of voters gets to decide criteria and review performance beyond one shot on election day. Criteria? Perhaps ability to read a moral compass, for starters. Slackers and lemmings not “entitled” to increases.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/25/2013 - 01:50 pm.


    Only if we have a Unicameral Legislature.

  10. Submitted by jody rooney on 03/25/2013 - 03:44 pm.

    They make more than the Minnesota per capita income ….

    of $30,310 according to quick facts at the US Census bureau.

    So the existing pay seems fair.

    Not to mention if you have talked with a lot of these folks no one else is ever going to pay them that kind of money.

    No on runs for the office because of the money they run because they either believe in public service and have a track record of doing that kind of work, they want power to advance their beliefs, or they believe that they have a unique perspective to bring.

    Instead of commissions I think tying wages and per diem – if you travel over 45 miles from you district anywhere (I like the idea of the legislature holding meetings around the state) if you to something like the states per capita income – keeps it fair – not subject to political manipulating and it has some rational for being representative of the state.

    Now the question I want to ask is why the Senators live higher on the hog than the House members? Seems to me there should be no reason for the difference.

  11. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 03/25/2013 - 03:47 pm.


    These representatives and senators NEED more pay. People cannot live on what they get unless they have a working spouse. Everyone should get a raise–the governor and other officials as well as our legislature. Who decides who is a slacker or a lemming? Who decides who has done a good job? I am sure this would end up being about parties.
    I agree with Arvonne.
    Why would anyone stay in a job like this? Long hours, especially at the end, pressures on you from all sides, esp on things like allowing same-sex marriages, or abortion, or even what goes into textbooks. And too often hate and scorn.
    I think a separate, neutral position should set up things like this.
    If it’s considered public service and therefore legislators will not be paid well, who is going to run the state? Only millionaires and billionaires can hold a job like this. And this job should be a career move if people want it. This is an onerous, exacting job and they should be paid accordingly. Of course many are career politicians. What do you want–anyone off the street? We need professionals who understand governance and politics and everything that goes into the job–as well as decent pay.
    What does a U of M coach make?
    Look at the pay for top management of private corporations. You think they deserve that?

  12. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 03/25/2013 - 04:02 pm.


    Someone else mentioned it but corruption is a valid reason to be concerned about low levels of pay. If a representative can’t make an honest living then they’ll make a dishonest living. Also, many former senators can take a lobbying job with a large bump in salary. Do we want good legislators leaving to become corporate lobbyists or do we want them participating in the process independently?

  13. Submitted by Sarah Silander on 03/25/2013 - 04:09 pm.

    $51,000 is more accurate — not $31,140

    Their compensation is fair if not generous for a part-timer and much higher than what Mr. Dornfield would have us believe.

    The state pays $51,000 per year for a typical Senator’s salary and benefits.* Almost $62,000 for those with family benefits.

    So no raise.

    In fact, cut two months off the length of sessions and 2/5 of their pay. Reason being they don’t need 5 month sessions. The real work gets done in 2-3 months starting March 1 just after final forecasts are released end of February. In addition the budget and other big items are always resolved at the last hour.

    As for “It’s more than a full-time job and you kind of build your life around it.” That does not justify higher pay because constituents did not benefit from your choice to work long hours.

    *$31140 (salary) + $6950 (single coverage hlth/dntl/life/disability) + $10406 (highest no questions/no receipts/per diem paid in 2012) + $2493 (retirement 6% of salary + per diem)

  14. Submitted by Nick Benton on 03/25/2013 - 04:16 pm.

    Plenty of Applicants

    There are plenty of qualified people who’d be happy to do it for free. Last I checked people are spending money to try to earn a $30k a year job. What’s to gain by raising the pay?

  15. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 03/25/2013 - 04:52 pm.

    Legislative compensation

    A part time job that turns out to be a career for many, with incredible compensation, including a pension for part time work?

    And travel pay for people who live a few miles from work?


  16. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 03/25/2013 - 04:59 pm.


    Nick: Who? The guy sweeping the street? The clerk at your local grocery who doesn’t follow politics? Your interior decorator? (oh, wait, she probably has a good salary)?
    What’s to gain by raising the pay? These people are human beings just like us and need to be able to live on their salaries ($31,000). Could you raise a family on that?
    We need to be fair and pay these people a decent salary or we get millionaires and/or corruption. Some people think only of numbers, not people. No way to decide that.
    Nick, you want to do it for free? Maybe your mother? Or your uncle Harry? Name one person who would do it for free — be ABLE — to do it for free –what a legislature we have. Why worsen it?

  17. Submitted by jody rooney on 03/26/2013 - 12:25 pm.

    Ginny I am semiretired I would happily do it for free

    as would my hubby. We have lived most of our lives and we love the state raised our family here and benefited a great deal from the education system, the public recreation facilities and all those folks who keep the roads clear. It would be an honor to serve and try to leave the state a better place as a legacy.

    Opps one caveat I would not exactly do it for free. The parking is atrocious near the capital I would do it for a good parking pass until rail gets out to Stillwater or White Bear.

    Being a legislator should not be a career.

    Maybe I should start the grey eagles party for the retired to run for office.

  18. Submitted by AR Juhnke on 04/01/2013 - 03:52 pm.


    This statement from the article is incorrect:

    “This nifty perk has enabled some outstate members to invest in houses and condos in the metro area.”

    Minnesota law does not allow the housing stipend to be used to purchase real estate or personal property. Members are allowed up to $1200/month for housing expenses. Receipts are necessary for reimbursement. Expenses can include: rent, phone, parking, furniture rental, internet, electric, heat, etc.

    In fact, many times this stipend will not cover the entire rental bill for a rural legislator living alone and he or she will need to supplement with their own funds each month.

    The reporter should correct this so it is accurate.

    – Former Rep. Al Juhnke

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