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Minnesota’s legislators: Are they underpaid?

For obvious political reasons, legislators are reluctant to vote to raise their own pay.

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.
Courtesy of MN House Public Information Services/Andrew VonBank

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.

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“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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Key:

  •  No commission/inactive
  •  Commission makes recommendations
  •  Commission acts unless vetoed
  •  Salaries tied to index
  •  Commission sets salaries
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.”