Minnesotans with something to say about how much state lawmakers should be paid now have their chance.
On Election Day, 76 percent of voters supported a constitutional amendment that will remove legislators’ ability to set their own pay and create a new citizen panel to sort out the salaries. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said this week that he’s taking applications for the group, which will be known as the Legislative Salary Council.
Dayton is responsible for appointing half the 16-member panel, while Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea will pick the other eight members.
The governor will appoint one member from each of the state’s eight congressional districts, and among them will need to be four Democrats and four Republicans.
The group will set legislators’ salaries by March 31 of each odd-numbered year — starting in 2017 — and any changes will take effect on July 1 of the same year.
If the council opts to give lawmakers a raise, it will be their first since 1999, when annual salaries were set at $31,140.
Increasing that rate has been a tricky subject for legislators, including many who see voting for their own raise as an unpopular political move.
Serving in the Legislature is supposed to be part-time work, but the demands of elected office can be a tough fit for those whose jobs might not offer the flexibility needed to be away in St. Paul for several months a year. Many legislators have separate jobs — like lawyers, farmers and consultants — but others have no outside employment.
The state’s Compensation Council, a separate group that reviews public salaries and offers recommendations, said in 2013 that legislators’ pay should be increased by 33 percent, starting in 2015, bringing it to $41,400 per year. But proposals for an increase failed to gain traction in the Legislature, so the issue went to the ballot.
The constitutional amendment didn’t attract an organized campaign for or against it, though some lawmakers said it could provide an important opportunity to increase salaries — and in doing so, attract and retain better candidates for the Legislature.
Senate DFL Leader Tom Bakk of Cook and one of the constitutional amendment’s authors, Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said lawmakers’ salaries have increasingly become a campaign issue, prompting inaction that isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the state.
“I don’t believe anyone should go into politics for the money, because it is public service,” Eken said, “but no one should decide to not go into politics because of the money, or to leave politics because of the money, either.”
Eken said the new council will bring an additional level of transparency — and separation — created for decisions about salaries. The rules set up along with the amendment disqualify a long list of people from being part of the salary setting group, including current or former legislators and their spouses, current employees of the Legislature, current or former lobbyists, judges, governors or other state officials.
Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell, who was critical of the idea when it was introduced, said he remains concerned about political influence over the salary decisions because appointments will be made by the governor — and the chief justice, who is appointed by the governor.
“City councils and school districts have always been able to deal with compensation at their level,” he said, “so why would we require the Legislature to have that set by a different group?”
But O’Driscoll said he shares the concern that low pay may keep good candidates away from public service, and believes the new council could help resolve that problem.
In addition to their salaries, House members are currently eligible for a per diem allowance of $77; senators get $96 per day, plus reimbursement for expenses like mileage. Outstate legislators can get up to $1,200 per month for a housing allowance. The top six leaders in the House and Senate are eligible for an additional $12,456 each year.
Information about applying for a seat on the new salary council is available on the Secretary of State’s website. Deadline for applications for the eight seats to be appointed by the governor is Dec. 5.