It's hard for the State Compensation Council to review and recommend future salaries for elected officials when council members have not been appointed. The state Senate's complement of council members was never named in 2011, a council staffer said this week in response to my query about the status of the council's statutorially-required biennial report.
That means that, barring a highly unusual thaw, the salary freeze that has been in effect for more than a decade will continue for legislators, state constitutional officers and the state agency heads whose salaries are pegged to the governor's. For legislators, who are constitutionally barred from enacting salary increases for themselves but can raise future legislative salaries, inaction this year means no raise until at least 2015 -- 16 years after their last pay hike.
For years, skittish lawmakers have simply ignored the Compensation Council's recommendations for regular, modest pay raises. The frustrated 2009 council told the Legislature that "the current statutory mechanism for adjusting salaries for these positions does not work." It suggested a constitutional amendment that would give the council the power to set salaries, subject to legislative veto -- a "base-closing commission" approach intended to take at least some political sensitivity out of compensation questions.
The Senate's response was, in effect, to make the council go away. That leaves state government with a compensation "system" unworthy of that label and ill-suited to the goal of attracting and keeping top talent in both elective and appointive public service.
The consequences of underpaying elected officials are increasingly apparent. This year and in the last several years, good legislators have chosen to end their public service prematurely because they find the $31,140 annual salary insufficient. Instead of raising salaries, legislators in 2007 raised daily expense payments, called "per diem," which for senators can add upwards of $12,000 to their yearly pay. (Senate per-diem amounts were rolled back from $96/day to $86/day in 2011. House per diem is $77/day. Members are free to refuse some or all of those payments.)
But per diem is old-fashioned, less than transparent and prone to mischief. A modern organization would do better by reimbursing documented expenses.
Meanwhile, the governor's salary, $120,303 has not been increased since 1998. Other constitutional officers' salaries haven't been adjusted since 2003. And most state agency heads can't get a raise because their salaries are pegged to the governor's.
The 2005 Compensation Council cited this reason to enact modest regular pay raises for elected officials: "Salaries...ought to be high enough so that potential candidates are not deterred by loss of income from running for office. Otherwise, we face the prospect of a Legislature that is not representative of Minnesota's citizenry." Those words bear heed.