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Salary council wrestles with a seemingly simple question: What should Minnesota legislators be paid?

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Council members from left to right: Charles McElroy, James Joy, David Metzen, and Tom Stinson speaking to Legislative Coordinating Commission staff member Greg Hubinger (standing).

It was a simple idea: Take away Minnesota legislators’ ability to set their own salaries.

Voters in Minnesota apparently thought it was a no-brainer. On Nov. 6, 77 percent of people who cast their ballots said they supported a constitutional amendment to create an independent, citizen-only council to tackle the question of what state lawmakers should be paid. 

In reality, it hasn’t been simple at all.

The 16 citizen members of the Legislative Salary Council started meeting in January, and they quickly realized they had far more to consider than just the baseline salary that most state legislators make for the part-time job each year, which is now set at $31,140.

There’s the per diem money legislators collect: $66 per day for House members and $86 for state senators while they’re session. There’s the money legislators get for additional lodging expenses if they travel long distances to serve at the Capitol: up to $1,500 per month all year long — even when they’re not in session. And then there’s lawmakers’ mileage reimbursements, which each member can collect for traveling to and from the Capitol and around their districts. What’s more, those annual per diem payments count toward a lawmaker’s pension.

Legally, none of those extraneous issues can be tackled by the salary council. But in considering legislative salaries, they’re taking it all in. The council is facing a March 31 deadline to set legislator salaries for the next two years.

“We have to get down to business here,” said Gloria Myre, an attorney and member of the council from the Second Congressional District. The council will have to take up the issue again in each odd-numbered year going forward.

The complexity of the issue was apparent at the council’s most recent meeting on Friday, when a string of former legislators testified about their struggles serving in the Legislature while trying to hold down another job. Members of the salary council are banned from talking to current legislators during their deliberations. After each person presented, a council member asked them to get more specific: What do they think legislator salaries should be?

Some suggested a figure as high as $65,000 a year, similar to what many county commissioners make in Minnesota, while others suggested raising it to the average household income in Minnesota, about $58,000 per year. “When I first started at the Legislature we got paid two chickens and a dozen eggs a week,” Roger Moe, a former Senate Majority leader, told the council. He was first elected in 1970, when legislators were paid $4,800 a year.

The salary was increased periodically over the years, but the last time legislators voted for a pay increase was in 1999. Since then, legislators have stayed away from changing their own salary, usually out of fear that they will face political blowback in subsequent elections.

Legislative Salary Council member Laura Witty
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Legislative Salary Council member Laura Witty, seated next to Diana Burlison.

Moe suggested legislators make a salary in the neighborhood of $50,000 to avoid something he said has become more common: legislators leaving in the middle of their term because their family can’t afford the $31,000 a year salary.

But former Republican Sen. David Hann, who is running for chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, said legislative salaries should remain where they are. He acknowledged that the job is more than part-time, especially in election years, but most people don’t serve because of the money.

He also said that the other financial perks for legislators do add up, he said. “The salary component is part of the compensation, but there are a lot of other components, and those other components are not very well known and not very transparent,” Hann said.

Former Republican Rep. Mary Liz Holberg earned a reputation as a fiscal hawk in the House, serving as chair of the Ways and Means Committee in 2011 as the state faced a $6 billion budget deficit. But even she admitted her family finances suffered when she was in the Legislature, negatively affecting the tree-clearing business she ran with her husband. The long hours she spent in St. Paul — sometimes sleeping on her couch during the 2011 budget session — meant there wasn’t someone handling the family business operations at home.

“We saw some of our business bookings hurt as a result of not having someone around,” said Holbert, who is now a Dakota County commissioner making about $73,000 per year. “We never did it for the money.”

Former Democratic Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher said the ideal scenario would be to eliminate the per diem — with some way to reimburse Greater Minnesota lawmakers who travel far — while raising the base salary for legislators. That would be a more transparent way to handle legislator pay, eliminating the more opaque per diem payments that often cause public outrage.

Legislative Salary Council member Deborah Olson.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Legislative Salary Council member Deborah Olson.

While she was recruiting people to run for the House, Anderson Kelliher said she never heard anyone say they didn’t want to run because of the salary. However, many legislators had a hard time finding another part-time job once they were in St. Paul. Many employers are not flexible enough to have an employee who is at the Capitol for half the year, and they worry about the many potential conflicts of interest that could arise from hiring someone who also shapes state policy.

Anderson Kelliher added: Many people probably voted for the constitutional amendment because they thought legislators were giving themselves pay raises and they wanted to put a stop to that. That’s not actually the case, and in fact, the most likely way for them to get a boost in pay is through this new independent council. 

That doesn’t diminish the importance of the task in front of the council, she said. Their decision will shape who chooses to serve in St. Paul, at a time when government budgets and agencies are growing and becoming more complicated every day.

“This work has become more complex. The size of the state budget has grown; the number of state programs has grown; the number of agencies has grown,” she said. “The Legislature is the check on the executive branch.”

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Lawrence Baker on 02/13/2017 - 11:13 am.

    legislator pay

    One way to approach this would be to consider what a comparable job would pay. I expect a legislator to be well-read, have good critical thinking skills, be an effective communicator, and to work hard. What would one have to pay for this type of person?

    I think that on average, we get what we pay for. By increasing salaries, I think we would attract a better talent pool, and end up with more productive (and centrist) legislatures.

    This said, my hat is off to some extremely competent legislators who have the complete skill set and have dedicated many years of their lives toward improving Minnesota. My district has two of the best – John Mary and Alice Hauseman.

  2. Submitted by Julie Moore on 02/13/2017 - 11:15 am.

    Salary for job done

    I think our elected officials need paid well enough for the job so that it doesn’t leave the positions open only to those financially well off. That being said, there needs to also be a way to remove pay when the job is not getting done. Maybe subtract for not having a balanced budget at the end of the session? Not sure what works and there are people much smarter in this area than me, but it seems they play games throughout the session and then run out of time and patience to make the hard votes when they need to at the end.

    • Submitted by Walt Cygan on 02/13/2017 - 02:54 pm.

      Clarification

      A balanced budget at the end of the budget session is constitutionally-mandated.

      I can appreciate what you are trying to accomplish with your proposal to ding legislators for poor performance, but I don’t think it would be workable. It would potentially give an incentive to the most well-off legislators to pressure those who need their salary to change their votes to break a deadlock. That wouldn’t be a very good outcome, IMHO.

  3. Submitted by Ivy Chang on 02/13/2017 - 11:38 am.

    additional pay

    Do the additional lodging and mileage reimbursement count toward legislators’ pension?

  4. Submitted by John Ferman on 02/13/2017 - 11:56 am.

    A starting point

    One way to start getting a handle on their pay would be to scale forward each pay segment by means of the Consumer Price Index. The theory being if the pay segment was adequte then, scaling forward for inflation should be adequate for now. There is one fly-in-the-ointment: back then did legislators have to have costly cell phone contracts as they do now, likewise for other tech requirements.

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/13/2017 - 12:09 pm.

    Ludicrous

    Ducking the political responsibility for setting salaries but retaining control over ancillary payments was ludicrous, to begin with. If legislators think they deserve higher compensation they should have had the scrotal contents to get on with it, reining in the abuse of per diem payments, housing allowances, etc. in the process. To expect a civilian panel to set salaries without giving them control over ancillary payments is just a means of keeping the faucet running while shrugging off responsibility.

    Want to know what your legislators collected last session? Ask them.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/13/2017 - 12:58 pm.

    My 2¢

    We’re failing to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

    “The Legislature is the check on the executive branch,” said Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who spent enough time in the legislature to know something about it. That leads me to a serious question: Does the executive branch serve part-time?

    If the executive branch works part-time, then a part-time legislature makes sense, and on that basis, a salary of $31K and perks doesn’t seem like starvation wages. It’s probably in line with average starting salaries for new teachers statewide, though I’m just guessing about that. In any case, since the executive branch obviously does not serve part-time, the whole argument about the salary of part-time legislators seems to me to miss the point. If, as Kelliher suggests, legislators routinely have to deal with ever-more-complex issues, the increased workload associated with that complexity, and my own desire, like that of Lawrence Baker, to get a deeper talent pool to serve, we should dispense with the fiction that “State legislator” is a part-time job, and also dispense with various forms of payment (e.g., the per diem payment) that are NOT transparent.

    Make being a state representative and/or a state senator a full-time job, one that has a salary commensurate with a full-time job working for the state, which means salaries—whether based on seniority, committee assignment, geographic location and travel necessity, education or eye color—ought to be fully and freely available to the public on the state’s website 24/7365, have the usual deductions made for state and federal taxes, Social Security, etc., and there ought to be NO payments in the shadows like per diem allowances and the like.

    Pay a living wage to members of the House, whatever that might be deemed to be (I’d be OK with $50K, no per diem, IRS travel allowance), pay Senators somewhat more because they purport to represent more citizens (Maybe $65K, with allowances the same as House members). I’d like to see a relatively small difference between House and Senate salaries (30%-40%), and reasonable allowances for travel without being too generous.

    Someone truly dedicated to public service ought to be able to make a living and raise a modest family on a legislative salary. At the same time, I’d also like to keep salaries low enough so that those with pretensions to affluence won’t make legislating their career, and modest salaries will help along those lines. And if we do something like that, let’s put in place some safeguards against the sort of “revolving door” that has thoroughly corrupted Congress, whereby people stop being a legislator one day, and become a lobbyist for some industry or interest group the next day. I’d argue that legislators ought to serve the public exclusively. If they want to serve private interests, including their own, they’re welcome to do that, but not while they’re legislators.

    And if the commission decides to ignore the elephant in the room, then I’d still like to see a double-switch, wherein salaries are increased, but per diem is eliminated.

  7. Submitted by John Ferman on 02/13/2017 - 01:56 pm.

    Off Session Pay

    As is well known, legislators are expected to attend functions and activities in their home districts. For those that pertain to legislative matters, such as eliciting public input into legislation, should the legislator be entitled to compensation? In our modern day there techy ways for such, should the legislator be reimbursed email server, ISP, etc services.

  8. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/13/2017 - 02:49 pm.

    Not complicated if you break it down

    First, this is a separate issue from their staff and other office expenses – salary, benefits and out of pocket expenses involved.

    Second, salary should be a function of the hours they spend on this so-called part-time job. They are more like consultants than regular workers. They can be working (or not) 7-24-365. Let’s say that they work 1000 hours a year on legislative business. Let’s say you pay Senators $60 per hour, Representatives $40. Salaries would be $60,000 and $50,000 respectively. At that pay rate, if they worked full time, they would take in $1200000 and $80000 respectively. Time studies could give an reasonable idea of what the typical legislator’s time commitment is.

    Third, anyone who thinks they aren’t working outside of session is not considering the issue of constituent services, meetings and the adult education needed to be an informed legislator. As it is, the current sessions are short – too short. How the sessions are structured should be different. Add to the current winter-spring session a late fall session starting after the election to wrap up any remaining business. Rather than calling a special session, simply plan on it. That schedule would not interfere as much with the growing season and keep Minnesota’s best weather months free of politics.

    Fourth, in business, staff submit expense report, with those expenses fully reimbursed unless questions are raised. Per diems have mostly disappeared. Obviously, most Greater Minnesota legislators cannot commute to work, so they have more expenses. While the state can continue to reimburse hotel stays, it would consider create an legislative dorm close to the capital where with regular shuttle service to save expenses.

  9. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 02/13/2017 - 04:19 pm.

    The worth of free advice…

    In private business, I am overwhelmed everyday by countless offers of free advice to improve all aspects of the business. Of course this free advice always has a hook somewhere that enables the advice giver to profit, reward that is likely beyond what is being offered to me. I consistently decline: I want my advice givers to offer a little more transparency: “I’ll pay you X for services Y”.

    Lobbyists are essentially the same as the “free advice givers” who call, email and write businesses on a daily basis. Only the would like us to think they operate on a higher plane of public service. Sorry folks, free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it: NOTHING.

    I would far prefer paying our legislators a professional level full time salary and providing competent staff to investigate and make their own decisions on the best course to follow based on the facts and not the free advice of special interests: just like a private business does.

  10. Submitted by Thomas West on 02/14/2017 - 09:18 am.

    Salary isn’t per diem

    During the campaign, I asked proponents of this amendment whether the new citizens council would determine only legislative salaries or if they would determine total compensation. I was told that its purview would only be over legislative salaries. That the council is even considering per diem levels falls to the level of bait-and-switch.
    Read the wording of the ballot question: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to remove state lawmakers’ power to set their own salaries, and instead establish an independent, citizens-only council to prescribe salaries of lawmakers?” It doesn’t say “per diem” nor does it say “total compensation.” The council can only set salaries.
    This is the kind of sloppy lawmaking that we saw all the way through the last legislative session, when Dayton vetoed the tax bill because of a typo. How do we remain a nation of laws when we are just making stuff up as we go along?

  11. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 02/14/2017 - 09:54 am.

    Pay them

    an equitable flat salary, like 5 other states do, and get out of the per diem game.

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