The high cost of being a Minnesota legislator

MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
State Sen. Branden Petersen speaking on the floor of the Minnesota Senate.

Branden Petersen hit his peak income at the age of 23. He was the youngest sales manager for home improvement chain Lowe’s in the Midwest region, and he was moving up fast. He was one promotion away from a six-figures salary.

Now Petersen is 29 and a father, and he works two jobs just to make a fraction of his old salary to try support his family. One is at an auto dealership. The other is as a Minnesota state senator.

Technically, the job of a state legislator is part-time, so Petersen makes $31,140 during each session, which run between January (or February) and May. But late nights and unpredictable hours during those sessions has made it hard to find another steady job that’s flexible and pays enough to cover the bills. Even with the gig at the auto dealership, he said, it was going to be tough to get by.

“Any job that will let you do that will not be a career,” said Petersen, who lives in Andover. “It got to the point where I had to make a choice.”

He chose to leave politics, announcing after the Fourth of July holiday that he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2016. The announcement was bemoaned by members of both parties, who liked Petersen’s style as a legislator. A Republican with a Libertarian bent, he made his name fighting for a robust medical marijuana program, tighter data privacy protections and as a champion of same-sex marriage.

But Petersen’s story is familiar in Minnesota politics, where many of the state’s youngest lawmakers have stepped down after the financial and family pressures caused by the job became too much. 

“If the financial piece was squared away,” Petersen said, “I think it’s pretty safe to say that I wouldn’t be leaving.”

‘It was hard to market yourself’

The salary lawmakers take in each year doesn’t include daily per diem and living expenses they can collect. During the session, state representatives can collect a per diem of $66 seven days a week, while senators are allowed $86 per day. They can also collect reimbursement for travel and lodging.

But for many legislators, especially those who live in the far-flung regions of the state, that doesn’t make up for the time commitment required to be a legislator, not just during session, but even in the off-season: meeting with constituents, talking to civic organizations, serving on task forces. 

Larry Hosch was 24 when he was first elected as a Democrat to represent the St. Joseph area in the state House. During his time in St. Paul, he got married and started a family, but he had a hard time finding another job that would let him be gone during the session. “I wasn’t well established in a career, and trying to find an employer who would let you be gone for half the year, it was just hard to market yourself for a job,” he said.

State Rep. Larry Hosch
Photo by Andrew VonBank
State Rep. Larry Hosch

And once a family entered the picture, it became harder to be more than an hour away from them most nights of the week during session. “Being away from my two children was painful. I couldn’t be the father I wanted to be,” said Hosch, who retired from the Legislature in 2012 and is now working for the Department of Human Services. His new job has steady hours and lets him work from home several days a week. “I had to reluctantly walk away from a job I absolutely loved.”

There’s no shortage of stories about legislators struggling: former DFL Sen. Mee Moua’s St. Paul home went into foreclosure in 2010 shortly after she stepped down from her state Senate seat; former Republican Rep. Mark Buesgens’ home in Jordan was foreclosed several years ago while he was still in the Legislature; current GOP Sen. Sean Nienow filed for bankruptcy last year after failing to pay off a six-figure small-business loan from the federal government.

Some legislators find ways around the scheduling and part-time pay. Several are teachers who work half the year, and some are lawyers who take on the clientele they can handle. Some subsidize their legislator salary with personal wealth, while others run their own business and have the luxury of being their own boss.

But even that can be tough. Former GOP Rep. Jim Abeler ran a chiropractic clinic in Anoka during his 16 years in the Legislature, but the hours he spent away during the legislative session made it hard to promise his clients consistent service. Some clients stayed, but others found other clinics. Abeler estimates he lost $1 million in profits during his time in St. Paul.

“I probably lost two-thirds of my practice over the Legislature,” said Abeler, who now lobbies but also still works at his clinic. “I don’t begrudge it, I just didn’t realize how much I lost until I was gone. I had to start the rebuilding process.”

The politics of pay raises

Though Minnesota legislators’ pay hasn’t gone up in 16 years, you’re not going to find many current lawmakers talking about the issue. It’s not only unpopular, but politically risky to talk about giving any public official a pay raise these days. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton learned that this spring when he used a 2013 law change to give a raise to more than two dozen of his commissioners, who he said could be making more in the private sector. It set off a flurry of criticism, with Republicans vowing to use the issue against Democrats on the campaign trail next fall.

DFL legislators heard similar arguments in 2013, when they voted to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2016 that will propose taking the power of legislative pay out of legislators’ hands, giving it to an appointed bipartisan panel. Only a handful of states give complete power over to a commission to decide their pay. Republicans in the state House railed against the move, saying it was a de facto vote to raise lawmaker pay. A toothless commission on lawmaker pay in Minnesota has already recommended higher salaries for legislators. 

Abeler voted against putting the amendment on the ballot as a legislator. But now that he’s retired from politics, he plans to vote in favor of the commission on the ballot next fall. 

“Some people find ways around it, but the person who works a hardware store, just the regular people, they can’t get out of that,” he said. “And no manufacturing plants can let someone off for five months. You want to get people from all walks of life in there. That’s supposed to be the beauty of a citizen Legislature.”

The Capitol ‘isn’t a place where everybody can serve’

For DFL Rep. Carly Melin, whose 200-mile commute from Hibbing to St. Paul this session took its toll on her family — she has a new baby at home — the biggest problem with the low pay for legislators is one of representation. 

“You are going to get a Legislature that is exclusively wealthy people,” she said. “I’d like to see more of a middle class Legislature and people with families and people with young kids. It’s important that we have a Legislature that reflects Minnesota, whether it be someone just starting out a family or someone who is retired.” 

State Rep. Michael Beard
State Rep. Michael Beard

Former GOP Rep. Michael Beard sold a small Christian newspaper business so he could run for a state House seat in Shakopee back in 2002. He won and served for more than a decade, living off that money and his wife’s income as a homecare nurse. But when she unexpectedly suffered a back injury, the Beards lost her income. For some time, all they had was Beard’s $2,600-per-month legislative salary. They sold equipment and dug into their reserves, but they were still sinking.

“No one should have to pay that kind of price to serve the public,” said Beard, who now serves as a Scott County Commissioner, making double what he did in St. Paul. “The legislature is a full-time job; it’s become that. To just have the ability to serve and at least not go backwards, that would at least be pretty nice. It affects recruitment. You get good people and good candidates who say, why would I ever do this?”

Most predict the legislator pay commission amendment will pass and the group will instate a raise for legislators, but neither outcome is certain. In 2009, California’s Citizens Compensation Commission reduced the salary of its legislators by almost $21,000. Petersen’s ideal solution is a Legislature that gets all it’s work done in five or six months and only meets once every two years, giving lawmakers a year off to work.

Occasionally Petersen wonders where he’d be now if he’d never left his old job with Lowe’s. “Had I stuck around there I imagine I would be in a pretty comfortable position now, given the trajectory I was on,” he said. “But that’s a decision I made with my eyes wide open. I wouldn’t take it back. Unfortunately, the Legislature just isn’t a place where everybody can serve.” 

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 07/16/2015 - 10:23 am.

    It’s not just the time in session

    Changing the time in session in St Paul does not solve the whole problem. Legislators are expected to be in multiple settings simultaneously. WE want to see them at parades, ribbon cuttings, and Moose Lodge meetings, but we also want them up-to-date on all sorts of state, local, and federal issues that require travel and meetings. WE want them to answer our calls, emails, and tweets, but we want them to interact with their colleagues and keep an eye on all the state agencies. WE want them to be effective which means seniority and being in the majority which requires fund-raising and campaigning not only for themselves but for their colleagues and newcomers. WE want them to meet with our mayor, school board, and town council as well as similar folks in the other cities in our district and we want them to be fine, up-standing family members, church-goers, and community volunteers.

    WE don’t want to pay them, support them, or work with them, but we feel free to denigrate them and attack them if they leave office to work as lobbyists and consultants. Seems like WE are a big part of the problem. I hope WE are willing to change not just for the legislators sake but for ours!

  2. Submitted by Robert Helland on 07/16/2015 - 11:32 am.

    Insufficient Research – MS 3.082

    The state law below should have at least been discussed in the article… Sen. Petersen made a choice to leave his private employment; Sen. Petersen made a choice to leave the senate. Boo hoo.

    The irony of it all? Sen. Petersen’s “libertarian bent” would likely say “government should not have laws imposing employment mandates on business” although it’s conceivably that sort of protection that is needed to help those like him to make the legislature a place where “everybody” (more inclusive) can serve. His alternative is to leave government representation to those who can privately finance themselves it seems through wealth or perhaps a kickstarter, bitcoin drive (despite the modest nearmedian income with salary, per diem and benefits.. for part-time, seasonal employment). I will say I will miss his bluntness, pun intended, and advocacy of marijuana legislation in his service.

    MS 3.082 MEMBERS’ EMPLOYMENT; CONTINUATION.
    A member of the legislature of the state of Minnesota who held a position, other than a temporary position, in the employ of a private employer in Minnesota at the commencement of service in a legislative session, who applies for reemployment not later than 30 days after the last legislative day in each calendar year, shall be continued in or restored to the position, or to a position of like seniority, status and pay. Retirement benefits under an employer-sponsored pension or retirement plan shall not be reduced because of time spent in legislative service.

    ~Bob Helland
    @MnWatcher on Twitter

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/16/2015 - 12:35 pm.

    Permanent

    Especially given the bum’s rush that characterized the last day or two of the most recent legislative session, with extraneous stuff being added to bills at the last minute – bills that at least some legislators hadn’t even read before voting on them by the legal deadline of midnight – I’d like to see the end of the part-time state legislature. With 5+ million people and a host of issues that require the attention of lawmakers, I’d happily boost the legislative pay to a level that provided a “living wage” in return for full-time legislative service. The part-time legislature is an anachronistic holdover from the state’s founding in the mid-19th century. While I don’t know any legislators personally, everything I’ve read suggests that it’s pretty much a full-time job anyway, and full-time work deserves full-time pay.

  4. Submitted by richard owens on 07/16/2015 - 01:32 pm.

    The NBA has a program to help new players learn to mangae money.

    It should be part of the MN Republican Party to get some education to their candidates, potential candidates, and Legislative members.

    The program could be outsourced, but first they will have to find the money to pay existing creditors.

    GOP fiscal cred is wearing pretty thin.

    How about they take another pledge besides Grover’s?

  5. Submitted by Amy Wilde on 07/16/2015 - 02:02 pm.

    legislative pay

    The general public has skewed beliefs about pay for elected officials, thanks in part to misleading email and social media posts, like the popular one claiming congressmen make “400,000 for life!” In reality pay, as described in this article, is generally low and expenses, benefits and pensions only average. Pensions are based on actual earnings (usually low) and are only “vested” following years of service. Yet financial expectations from elected officials are high, including keeping up a session residence, professional attire, a dependable car, attending community benefits & fundraisers, and paying for memberships in a dozen or more civic organizations and subscriptions to several papers. When I was on my county board, we attempted to “keep up” by granting ourselves the same percentage of pay increase as granted annually to county employees–except for the two Recession years when pay was kept flat. But even this falls short as percentage-based increases benefit the higher-paid individuals more in actual dollars than the lower-paid employees–which usually include the elected officials. It is political suicide, however, to substantially increase one’s own salary, so I understand why some legislators want to turn it over to a commission. But yes, I know several good elected officials who retired due to the low pay. The salaries vary depending on the legislature or board; generally school boards, township boards and small cities pay the least and often have difficulty finding people willing to serve.

  6. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 07/16/2015 - 02:04 pm.

    Struggling

    I agree its not easy getting by on a legislator’s pay, but the Nienow and Moua stories aren’t going to generate much sympathy. Nienow took out a $600k business loan he couldn’t pay back. Moua bought a $800k house she couldn’t afford.

  7. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 07/16/2015 - 02:15 pm.

    Well, its been like this for the last 150+ years so everybody knows the drill. And, do you really, really, believe that a so-called full-time legislature will avoid the last minute crunch? If you do, we need to have a serious talk about the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, etc.

    However, for the sake of discussion, what do you suppose it would cost to have a full-time legislature?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/16/2015 - 04:20 pm.

      It Wouldn’t Even be a Rounding Error

      In terms of the total budget. The cost would be inconsequential; other factors are of far more import as to whether or not this should be done.

  8. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 07/16/2015 - 02:26 pm.

    Sorry for once to see one leave

    Sad to see Branden Petersen leaving politics. He was the ONE Republican I could still vote for. Oh well, so gutters out the party.

  9. Submitted by John Lindell on 07/16/2015 - 02:36 pm.

    Revenue Neutral Solution

    Reduce the number of legislators by half and pay them twice as much.

  10. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 07/16/2015 - 02:51 pm.

    Part Time Legislature

    The solution is not more pay, but less legislature. Back in the 60s, the legislature was truly part-time, only meeting every other year for a month or two. Many of the members were farmers, lawyers, or had other jobs that they needed to get back to. Pay was minimal, and not nearly enough to live on.

    In those days, the job attracted civic minded people who were willing to make the sacrifice to serve. They had tremendous time pressures to get the job done, adjourn, and get back to their regular lives.

    In the late 60s the attitude changed, and the argument was made that we had to increase pay to attract better members. This created a completely new dynamic where serving in the legislature was no longer the pinnacle of someone’s political career, but rather the 1st step on the path to running for president.

    The net result is that everyone wants to author a bill to build their political credentials. Our statute books have grown from 2 to 6 or 7 volumes, and the size of the bureaucracy and cost of government has soared.

    The world is not that much different today than it was 50 years ago. Maybe we should roll back the clock and get back to a world where we were represented by average people with real jobs, rather than professional politicians who don’t have any real world pressure to make them get the job done in a timely manner.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/16/2015 - 04:17 pm.

      Nostalgia

      Is a dangerous drug. The real world is a more complicated place than it was 50 years ago. Most of us are unwilling to go back to those days, when houses were smaller, few had dish washers, air conditioning, cars with remote starters, iPhones, Netflix, etc. How many occupations & industries of today weren’t even imagined then?

      Life’s such a drag when you live in the past.

  11. Submitted by Tom Rees on 07/16/2015 - 04:16 pm.

    “one promotion away from a mid-six figures salary.”

    Wow! You state, “He was one promotion away from a mid-six figures salary.” That would be $400,000 a year or more salary? I have a son-in-law who has and MBA and 150 managers around the world who work for him for a prominent Minnesota based retailer who doesn’t make near that and his company has more stores than Lowes! Curiously, the author does not mention that on Senator Petersen’s Minnesota Senate website he lists his occupation as “communications consultant.”
    I had the honor of serving three terms in the Minnesota House some years ago. I worked for a Minnesota Fortune 500 company. I remember well after I was first elected being approached by a wonderful legislator by the name of Ray Pleasant from Bloomington who also worked for another Minnesota Fortune 500 company. Ray explained that I had set back my career in a large company just as he had and that I should have no allusions that the company management would not look kindly on me being away from my desk during legislative sessions. He said he had suffered by not getting promoted as quickly as his colleagues with similar backgrounds had.
    In regard to the state law protecting your job another commentator cited above, my manager said that if I was not in public session or in public committee meetings I would be obliged to be at my desk. This went on for a couple of weeks where I was at my desk between 8 AM and 4:30 PM if I did not have a scheduled meeting. One evening I attended a meeting that then State Auditor Arne Carlson was also attending. He engaged me in conversation and asked how I was doing with my employer; when I told him he was quite unbelieving that my manager would interpret my obligation such as he did. (A note: I also was serving in the Minnesota Army National Guard at the time and consequently I had a two week summer obligation that according to my management meant that no one in our office could bid those two weeks for vacation making, he said, some of my co-workers unhappy.) The next day I did not have a legislative meeting so I showed up at my desk. I was summoned by my vice-president to his office where my manager was also seated. To make a long story short – I was told to return to my desk after the session was over in May. Apparently Arne had called someone at my company and suggested it would be better for the company to allow me to fully participate in legislating during the session.
    My wife and I had a toddler when I was first elected ; a son in my first term and another son in my second term so I can appreciate Senator Petersen’s family situation.
    It should have been noted in the article that Senator Petersen in addition to his $31,000 plus salary also collected the tax free per diem of over $11,0000. (In may case my employer did not pay me per diem to come to work so I felt it inconsistent for me to accept per diem payments during my service in the legislature.)
    I fully understand the pressures of campaigning and serving, however I believe Minnesota does not need a full-time legislature that becomes more dependent on hired representatives from various interest groups to “assist” them in making decisions for Minnesota; I would argue that the best representation comes from people that return to their communities after session and work in the real world doing real world jobs.

  12. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/16/2015 - 05:03 pm.

    There are a lot of sad stories

    on both sides of the aisle, with respect to salaries and the retention of outstanding legislators.

    Some of them are fortunate enough to have spouses with significant incomes or employers who are willing to support them but others do not.

    I believe that a partial solution is to cut the size of the Senate by one-third and make the house such that there are two legislatures per Senate district. Then ALL of them, Senators and Representatives, should be paid twice the going rate.

    This will never happen – but it should. Making an improvement like this might cut down on the farcical behavior we witnessed in the end of session this year. Make being a member of the legislature a full time, reasonably paid job. Keep some of the great folks – on both sides of the aisle – we’ve lost because the legislators and their families can no longer bear the financial burden.

    Kudos to B. Bierschbach for another excellent article about our legislature. She is tops.

  13. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 07/16/2015 - 05:04 pm.

    No one…….

    is forcing these people into going into politics. They do it by choice.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 07/17/2015 - 09:26 am.

      Should politics be a volunteer position?

      Do you want to eliminate everyone with a steady job from consideration? Why make being a politician onerous for the people serving?

      One thing not mentioned – low pay and access to lobbyist cash is a dangerous combination.

  14. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/16/2015 - 05:46 pm.

    Another side of the coin

    In my comment above I failed to mention something else that seems relevant. If we combine Mr. Petersen’s legislative salary of more than $31,000 with the tax-free per diem he’s allowed, his effective salary is over $40,000. While a still feel a full-time legislature would be significantly better for the state and its citizens than the horse-and-buggy version we have now, it also seems useful to point out that, according to census figures, Mr. Petersen’s combined salary figure approximates the median income in my Minneapolis neighborhood. There are plenty of people working full-time, non-minimum-wage jobs whose income is less than what Mr. Petersen was taking home.

    It would be a good thing if legislators kept in mind that even their part-time salary puts them in a better financial position than a great many adult, employed Minnesotans.

  15. Submitted by Fritz Knaak on 07/16/2015 - 10:38 pm.

    Good Article: An Irony

    The story is as true now as it was in ’92 when I left. (I don’t think the salary has gone up much at all since then, by the way)

    When I didn’t have to run for re-election, my billings in my law practice QUADRUPLED—–not doubled—–quadrupled. I used to brag that I had two full time jobs. Unfortunately, what would give eventually were the families. Divorce rates among legislators were gallingly high. You’d expect the opposite.

    Good article.

    • Submitted by Mike Worcester on 07/17/2015 - 08:12 am.

      Why So High?

      “Divorce rates among legislators were gallingly high.”

      What do you feel was the cause of this high divorce rate? Was it stress of the time away from their families? Is that rate still as high now as it was during the days you served? And — unfortunately I need to play the gender card here — was/is the incidence of divorce more on the part of male legislative members as opposed to female members?

      (Also, I will respectfully submit that as a kid I knew plenty of Democratic legislators who viewed serving as a civic duty, not just a paycheque. That included folks like Gerald Willet and Tony Kinkel, to name a couple.)

  16. Submitted by Fritz Knaak on 07/16/2015 - 10:47 pm.

    The Other Side of the Coin

    Ray Schooch’s comment above reminds of an old story former Minority Leader Bob Ashbach liked to tell about the Minnesota Senate.

    Ashbach would go all over the state to civic groups and the like and make the hard pitch for successful and qualified people to run for the legislature. He would talk about civic virtue and the need for respected community and business leaders to run for office. For him, of course, running for office was pitched as a great civic honor that came with some personal sacrifice. He himself was a very successful businessman. On a lucky day, he might get one or two people raising their hands to express some interest.

    His counterpart, the flamboyant Majority Nick Coleman would go to a teacher meeting, a union hall or some other gathering peopled more likely by Democrats than not and would ask one simple question:

    “Who wants to make thirty grand?”

  17. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/17/2015 - 05:30 pm.

    limited pool of candidates

    I appreciate legislators trying, even those who vote the wrong way every time. The low pay for what should a full time job limits the pool of candidates to the independently wealthy, the few who can drop a job or business, have a working spouse, or retirees with a good pension. Raising the pay to a full time level seems like a no-brainer, but I get why incumbents fear the electoral blowback from seeking an increase. Some people will reflexively and ignorantly whine about the increase.

  18. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 07/18/2015 - 09:48 pm.

    And yet

    There’s no way anyone can wrest Rep. Kahn’s seat away from her nor the others who have served as long as most of us can remember.

  19. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/21/2015 - 07:48 pm.

    I’d be more sympathetic if

    they actually accomplished anything meaningful in the legislature. A legislature full of political zealots accomplished nothing. But just before the next election we will hear how they all have worked across the aisle. If that were true we wouldn’t be in gridlock so stop the baloney.

Leave a Reply