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Salary council boosts legislator pay by $14,000

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Council members struggled to set legislative salaries without being able to touch other forms of compensation for legislators, including per diem and mileage reimbursements.

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.”

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 03/11/2017 - 06:55 am.


    This Salary Council is a good idea, decoupling the process of reimbursement from politics. The same should be done for redistricting. As with reimbursements, redistricting needs to be a rational, fair process that responds to the needs of the citizens. Just as the reimbursement process now results in fair salaries, the redistricting process should result in compact districts that serve voters who want to elect their politicians instead of allowing politicians to select their voters.

    • Submitted by kaimay terry on 03/11/2017 - 11:10 am.

      Bravo, you get to the heart of the problem

      < Just as the reimbursement process now results in fair salaries, the redistricting process should result in compact districts that serve voters who want to elect their politicians instead of allowing politicians to select their voters>
      The reason why there is such low regard for elected politicians is the games they play to keep their own jobs vs the public good

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/11/2017 - 07:37 am.

    How many legislators?

    It should be interesting to see how many legislators take the pay raise. More specifically I wonder how many Republicans who have argued for years that legislators were overpaid as it is, now take the additional dollars.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/11/2017 - 12:23 pm.

      Oh, You Mean Like

      The new senate office building? That was a pretty sweet deal. They campaign on opposition to what they can an extravagant building, then when they win they move right into those offices.

      I guess you’d call that a suite deal.

  3. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 03/11/2017 - 07:48 am.

    What kind of Legislature do we want?

    That’s the crucial question. Back in the 60s, we had a truly part time legislature. The pay was so low, nobody could do this as a career. Being in the legislature was the pinnacle of most peoples life of public service, after they served on their local school boards, city councils, etc. The legislature only met every other year, and there was tremendous pressure to get the job done quickly so that everyone could get back to their farms or other jobs.

    Then an effort was made to “upgrade” the quality of the legislature by increasing the pay. That enabled the establishment of a professional political class, that now dominates the legislature. Running for office is in many cases now the 1st step in a quest for higher office.

    This latest pay raise accelerates that process. That is NOT what I want. Let’s cut the pay drastically and go back to a true part time legislature of normal people who have to work for a living and have a strong incentive to get the job done in a timely fashion, rather than the perpetual debate and bickering that is part of our current political world.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/11/2017 - 10:45 am.

      Opposite will happen

      If you cut the pay, only those with lots of money already will be able to serve. You will cut out all the normal people.

      • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 03/14/2017 - 11:24 am.

        Even worse

        Low pay encourages corruption. If you cut the pay to where it isn’t worth a person’s time the only people who will sign up are those who will find a way to make money otherwise from their position of power.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/11/2017 - 12:21 pm.


      Is a very dangerous drug.

      The era of the part time legislature was wonderful. At least in some respects. Technology changes just a wee bit faster these days, doesn’t it? If we want to go back to cars with carburetors, tires that only last 20,000 miles, a black rotary dial land line, a few national brewers selling 95% of the beer sold in this country, I suppose we could go back to that era. I doubt many of us want that.

      This morning I heard a rooster crow, then I saw sunlight through my window. I’m pretty sure the sun would have come up, rooster or no. And I’m pretty sure the legislature would still be meeting every year even if the pay were lower. That’s true in Georgia, new Hampshire and Louisiana.

  4. Submitted by C.S. Senne on 03/11/2017 - 01:10 pm.

    Right on!

    “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.” Ya got that right, Jim.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/11/2017 - 03:11 pm.

    45% increase and

    no phase in. Why not a phase in like other salaries ? Per Diem is a scam, get rid of it.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/13/2017 - 05:32 pm.

      Phase In? You Kidding Me?

      The last raise was like 20 years ago. And that’s part of the problem. All it took was a few legislators to grand stand on even a modest pay raise, and it wouldn’t go through. This happened year after year, and then a big increase would be due.

      I’d question the wisdom of someone who is working for the same pay, year after year, for 20 years.

  6. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 03/11/2017 - 04:55 pm.

    Long history

    MinnPost has done some fine pieces on this subject in the past. This one has some data that’s revealing.

    There are nifty charts in this piece (2015 data), including declines in formerly dominant occupations.
    Farmers used to dominate the legislature (which says something about the kind of priorities we’ve seen reflected in our laws), but in 2015 only 9 legislators identified themselves as employed in agriculture. The number of lawyers is also diminishing, while “business” dominates.These jobs that used to allow someone to serve and also support a family are diminishing, which means more and more people with money dominate the legislature.

    This story focuses on some people who just couldn’t manage.

    If we aren’t going to have oligarchic government, what else can we do to encourage broader representation? I don’t think a $14,000 raise is unreasonable especially after 20 years. However, it still brings the salary to considerably below the state median, making it tough for anyone without personal means to consider running for the legislature. Anyone who isn’t self- employed is at a serious disadvantage.

    Could a change in the legislative calendar help? Perhaps the definition of part time needs to be reconsidered so as not to follow the old agricultural calendar. What about telecommuting? Some committee meetings last only a few minutes; at least at the committee level, some votes could be electronic.

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