A group of 18 employees of the Minnesota Senate are in line for almost $79,000 in pay increases this year, a typically routine procedure that takes on greater political implications thanks to recent squabbling at the Capitol over salary hikes for government officials.
The pay raises on tap for those employees are considerably lower than the hikes that Gov. Mark Dayton recently tried to grant members of his cabinet, which triggered a harsh backlash and a vote by the Legislature to undo the raises. But arguments from state lawmakers in defense of boosting pay for their own employees are nearly identical to those vocalized by Dayton, who said that low state government pay makes it tough to compete with the private sector and other layers of government for top talent.
“We want to get the best and brightest here if we can,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, at a recent meeting of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Personnel and Budget. On Tuesday, that panel voted 3-1 in favor of the Senate’s permanent employee roster, which if approved by the full Senate Rules Committee will spread $78,852 in additional pay to 18 of the Senate’s 202 permanent employees.
The pay increases do not require a vote by the full 67-member Senate to take effect.
While supporting the Senate pay hikes, Gazelka voted against the recent legislative compromise that gave Dayton one-time authority to restore more than $800,000 in pay increases for 30 state commissioners that the Legislature blocked. Senate Republicans in particular criticized that compromise, arguing it gave Dayton too much latitude to boost state commissioner salaries to what they called unacceptable levels.
“If you look at what these folks make working for the Senate compared to what the governor was offering, his pay raises were as much as many of these people’s total pay,” Gazelka said in an interview.
Senate support for their employee pay increases is bipartisan. In the personnel subcommittee meeting, Gazelka was joined in backing the raises by Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin. Assistant Majority Leader Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, cast the dissenting vote, after expressing concern that employees of the Senate’s Republican caucus seemed to be overrepresented among those getting more pay.
“I don’t understand why some people are getting them and others aren’t,” Sieben said. “It’s not that some people shouldn’t be getting them. It’s because others are not.”
In most cases, the pay increases for Senate employees are tied to job promotions or additional responsibilities. The raises are between $1,903 and $11,035 a year. Most are in the range of a 5 percent salary increase, although several are considerably larger, including two Senate DFL researchers who would see 33 percent pay hikes, from $33,259 to $44,294 a year.
The process for deciding who gets pay raises is murky. An internal group composed of senior Senate staffers, known as the Management Advisory Committee (MAC), is charged with reviewing employee advancement in what are known as “job families” — researchers, analysts, administrators, assistants and other groupings of Senate employees. Those decisions are largely based on years of service, but other factors can be considered, Senate Secretary JoAnne Zoff told the subcommittee.
But Zoff said the advisory committee doesn’t always have the final say.
“Some of these promotions were recommended by the leadership and did not necessarily go through the MAC,” Zoff said.
Of the 18 permanent employees in line for higher pay, three work in the Senate’s nonpartisan professional offices, which has 78 total employees. Seven work for the 82-employee DFL caucus, and three of those in the offices of Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk. The remaining seven work in the Senate GOP caucus, which has 42 employees.
A spokeswoman for Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he was not available for an interview Friday. Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, declined an interview request through his spokeswoman.
Disagreements between Dayton and Bakk over the cabinet salary hikes blew up publicly last month, elevating the controversy further and finally forcing Dayton to surrender his authority to grant additional increases beyond the one-day window on July 1.
Pappas, the president of the Senate and chairwoman of the personnel subcommittee, was one of only two DFL senators to cast an initial vote of support for Dayton’s cabinet pay increases. While she called those raises justifiable, Pappas also said she doesn’t think it’s an apt comparison to the additional pay for Senate employees.
“It’s much smaller,” Pappas said. “We’re talking about a promotion adjustment or an equity adjustment based on underfunded salaries in the past” — a reference to employee pay freezes in the Senate in 2008 and again in 2013-14. The Senate has also commissioned a pay study by the National Conference of State Legislatures, due sometime in April, that Pappas said would be the foundation for future efforts to boost what she said are generally lagging salaries for state Senate employees.
Without Dayton’s raises, most of his cabinet members earn in the upper five figures or low six figures. After the increases, the salaries for the 18 Senate employees in question range between $40,000 and $66,000 a year.
In the state House, the Rules Committee approved its permanent employee roster in early January with little debate, before the blowup over Dayton’s salary hikes. At least a handful of GOP employees who work close to Speaker Kurt Daudt saw pay boosts as the GOP transitioned from minority to majority, but the House Human Resources office was unable to provide an exact accounting of who received pay increases, and by how much, in time for this report’s deadline.
The brouhaha over Dayton’s decision has calmed at the Capitol, but it’s likely to flare again leading up to the July 1 date on which the governor could restore some or all of the raises. So far, he won’t say what he’s going to do.
The 2016 election, in which all 201 state legislators are up for re-election, is also likely to ignite a big political debate over government pay. A constitutional amendment on the November 2016 ballot will ask voters whether decisions about pay rates for legislators should remain part of the legislative process, or be taken over by an independent commission.
Rank-and-file legislators are paid $31,140 a year, and haven’t had a raise since 1999, given the politically risky proposition of voting to boost your own pay.
“What we get compared to the size of those commissioners’ raise, it’s dramatically lower,” Gazelka said. “Those raises were more than the whole salary of a state legislator.”