Anyone who watched the Minnesota Legislature in the months following the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic might have thought that the state House and Senate were full-time institutions.
In addition to the regular sessions that spread out from January to May, the Legislature returned to St. Paul monthly due to provisions of state law governing declarations of peacetime emergencies. Lawmakers met in session for at least one day a month between January 2020 and May 2021.
But it wasn’t full-time then and it isn’t full-time now. Regardless of the time spent in session, the annual salary of $48,250 doesn’t change. Under a constitutional provision, the Legislature can meet in regular session for just 120 “legislative days” over the course of two years. Each year, the House and Senate must adjourn regular sessions on the Monday following the third Saturday of May (May 23 this year). Special sessions don’t count against the 120-day cap.
But for the first time since 2003, a bill has been introduced to change that. The proposal, (House File 4840) introduced by Rep Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, along with a companion bill in the Senate by Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, would ask voters to remove the 120-day limit and the May adjournment date from the Minnesota Constitution.
“We are losing a lot of good people every single cycle who aren’t able to make it work with the demands of having another part-time job,” Long said. “A number of my colleagues see the downsides of having a full-time executive and a full-time court system and only a part-time Legislature.”
Lawmakers aren’t able to be a counter-balance to the chief executive when only present in St. Paul less than half the year, he said. Long also blamed the increase in large omnibus bills on the pressure for lawmakers to act on a lot of legislation in a relatively short period.
“It’s not a very good way of legislating,” Long said.
Amending the Constitution in Minnesota is relatively easy — majority votes in the House and Senate and a majority vote of the public. But there is a quirk in that an amendment must receive a majority of all votes cast in the election, which means not voting on an amendment is the same as voting ‘no.’
Still, it’s not going to be on the ballot this fall. There are two reasons. First, Republicans who control the state Senate pretty much hate the idea.
“Moving to a full-time legislature is an absolutely terrible idea and would move us more toward Washington, D.C.-style politics,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, a Republican from Winona. “It’s important to maintain the current citizen-legislature to ensure we don’t have a legislature full of career politicians.”
In addition, Long says he won’t try to move the bill this session. Instead, he introduced it to spur a conversation among legislators. And while private conversations with Republicans reveal some openness to the idea, it is not a position any are willing to take now, Long said.
“My goal is to start the conversation and see if we can build bipartisan support for next year,” he said. “We’re just starting to have the dialogue about it, but I’m hoping this will give the public a chance to weigh in and force members to think hard about whether the way we do it now is the right approach.”
Not an outlier
The National Conference of State Legislatures doesn’t measure the 50 state Legislatures in terms of strictly being full-time or part-time. Instead, it breaks states down along a gradient, from full-time with large staffs that spend many days in session to part-time with small staffs and few days in session.
The 10 states with full-time legislatures tend to be the most populous — but also include Alaska and Hawaii.
Minnesota is among the states that have what the NCSL considers hybrid legislatures, which spend more than two-thirds of their time doing legislative work and have professional staff but aren’t paid enough for most to avoid having other income.
Finally, the NCSL analysis has a list of states that are paid the least, spend half or less of their time doing legislative functions and have smaller staffs. These 14 states — which include North and South Dakota — tend to have lower populations and are more rural.
All of which brings up another question: Would lawmakers get a pay raise if Minnesota went to a full-time Legislature? A previous constitutional amendment in 2016 turned over legislative salary setting to an independent commission. That group looks at legislative pay in other states and would likely propose increases to match other full-time legislatures such as those in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.
“Being a legislator should not require you to be independently wealthy,” said Senate prime sponsor Port.