Readers of this page know that we look askance at amendments that ask the voters to change the state Constitution to do something for the public good that the Legislature already has the authority and obligation to do on its own, by statute.
But we’re willing to make an exception when the Legislature has shown itself incapable of doing its duty, or when the matter in question presents the Legislature with a conflict of interest. The amendment about legislative compensation that the 2013 Legislature sent to the 2016 ballot appears to fall into that exceptional category.
Minnesota is three years away from a full-throated campaign on the question. It’s too early for the Star Tribune to definitively recommend a yes-or-no vote. But now that 16 years have passed since the Legislature voted to raise its salary, it’s increasingly obvious that this elected body is both politically incapacitated and impeded by conflict of interest when it comes to its own pay.
The amendment would hand responsibility for setting legislative pay to a commission — appointed by the governor and chief justice of the Supreme Court — on which no legislator, former legislator, lobbyist or former lobbyist could serve. Appointees would be evenly split between the two largest political parties at the Legislature.
The amendment offers no guarantee of a pay raise. The proposed commission would be as free to cut pay as to increase it. But by 2017 it will be 20 years since the Legislature set its members’ salaries at $31,140 per year. The case for a raise will be very strong.
In 1999, when the current salary went into effect, and regularly since then, the Compensation Council, an advisory panel composed of both citizens and legislators, has urged the Legislature to give itself regular modest raises. If it did not, the council argued, inflation would erode the salary’s value, and the pool of Minnesotans willing to serve in the Legislature would shrink. Midlife breadwinners would disappear from the Legislature’s 201 seats, the council cautioned. The Legislature would be populated mostly with retirees, the independently wealthy, and the young — who wouldn’t stay long.
That prediction has been coming true. Meanwhile, the demands of legislative service have escalated with growth in the state’s population. “Although intended to be a part-time position, the legislator’s role is increasingly complex, requiring more and more time for legislative duties, with less time available to devote to a second job,” the Compensation Council said this year.
In 2007, the expense allowance known as per diem was raised to $86 per day for senators and $66 for House members. Per diem allots most legislators an additional $6,000 to $9,000 per year. This newspaper has long recommended replacing per diem with a more transparent system of reimbursement for documented expenses.
Per diem amounts would not be set by the new commission that the amendment would create, though the commission would be directed to take “into account any other legislative compensation provided to legislators by the state of Minnesota.” That directive should serve as a check on legislative appetites.
But large appetites for pay have not been a problem in recent years. The opposite has.
This year, the Senate’s DFL majority pushed for the raise the 2013 Compensation Council recommended. It would have set legislative pay at 33 percent of the governor’s, or $42,240 in 2015. But the measure lost the expected backing of several Senate Republicans as it reached the floor.
That was seen as a GOP signal that it intended to use a vote for a pay increase against any DFLer who cast it — and House DFLers, on the ballot in 2014, were keen to prevent such attacks. They latched onto the amendment, an idea promoted by DFL Sen. Kent Eken since 2004 and endorsed by a frustrated Compensation Council in 2009.
The amendment is a risky move. It’s likely to be cast by opponents as a backdoor way for legislators to get a pay raise — though its wording (see adjacent box) is intended to ease worries that legislators somehow would still be in charge. If voters reject the amendment, political paralysis over pay would intensify, and the talent pool available for legislative service would continue to shrink.
Eken maintains that the conflict of interest inherent in elected officials’ setting their own salaries is both unacceptable and unworkable. It’s worth the cost and risk associated with constitutional change to end that conflict, he argues. He may be right. We look forward to a lively debate over his proposed remedy.