Four months after voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of an independent council to set state legislator salaries, the group voted nearly unanimously to raise legislators’ pay by $14,000 per year for the next two years.
In a 13-1 vote Friday, the Legislative Salary Council set in motion a pay increase for all 201 Minnesota legislators from $31,140 per year to $45,000 per year starting on July 1. In two years, the council will consider legislator pay again and make new recommendations.
The move will surprise some voters, who may have thought they were voting to take away legislators’ power to give themselves unchecked raises. That’s because of clever wording on the ballot question November, which asked: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to remove legislators’ ability to set their own salaries, and instead establish an independent, citizens-only council to prescribe salaries for legislators?”
The amendment passed easily, but the reality facing the council was much more complicated. Legislator pay hasn’t been raised since 1999, mostly because legislators feared the political blowback that follows a vote to raise their own pay.
Technically, the job of a legislator is part-time, but council members argued that the job is closer to full-time with the legislative session, constituent services and campaigning all considered. “We actually need to do a catch-up thing here because of the failure to act over a 17 year period,” said council member William Donohue.
It wasn’t lost on council members how surprised many members of the public will be. “When it comes out with a $14,000 increase, it’s going to make headlines and we are not going to be a popular group anymore,” said council member James Joy.
The 16-member commission, made up of both Democrats and Republicans from across the state, started their work in January. They struggled with what to do about the other forms of compensation legislators get, including mileage reimbursement, lodging expenses, extra pay for top leadership posts and per diem, which legislators set. Senators can collect $86 in per diem per day during session, while House members can collect $66 per day.
“I think the per diem is more than fair,” said council vice chair Patrice Hannan. “I even think it’s a little high.”
But the constitutional amendment only gave the council authority to set the salary of legislators — only the Legislature itself can make changes to per diem payments. Several members of the salary council argued that a higher base salary could give the council a strong position to argue that per diem should be eliminated. Per diem payments can vary from legislator to legislator, depending on how much they choose to collect, and aren’t as transparent as the base salary figure, they argued. The council’s final recommendations are due by March 31.
Other members said the council should be thinking about the Legislature it wants — reflective of the state as a whole — instead of the one it currently has. A higher salary will entice people of all backgrounds to consider a run.
“We should be thinking we are setting salaries for what we are hoping is going to be new talent and representative members of our society,” council member Sherrie Pugh said. “[People] who want to serve their state but need to be compensated in a manner that allows them to be whole.”