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Minnesota legislators say they don’t want to decide their own pay.
In the waning days of the legislative session, the House and Senate placed a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot proposing to take the power of legislative paychecks out of lawmakers’ hands and give it to an appointed bipartisan panel.
“Nothing has a more direct benefit to ourselves than our own pay,” said Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley. “There is a glaring conflict of interest.”
If voters approve the ballot measure in three years, Minnesota legislators will join four other states in completely giving up the power of the purse when it comes to their pay. Another dozen states, like Minnesota, have a commission that recommends pay but require further action before those recommendations become law.
In Minnesota, the commission has recommended increases, but, given the difficult politics of raising their own pay, legislators have left their salaries stagnant since 1999. They now earn $31,500 a year, plus expense payments that can almost double that.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, pushed the Legislature to change that. On a narrow vote, the Senate approved increasing pay to $42,000 by 2015. Proponents say that the low salary makes it increasingly hard to recruit candidates to serve in the Legislature.
But, despite support from Gov. Mark Dayton to push lawmakers’ pay even higher, the DFL-controlled House never followed suit.
Instead, the Legislature approved the constitutional amendment. The idea has had bipartisan support in the Senate, but in the House, it drew backing only from Democrats and opposition from Democrats and Republicans.
“I think it is a bad idea during tough economic times for lawmakers to vote for a pay raise for themselves or, even worse, to defer it to an elected group,” said Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.
The ballot question
The question, which does not require gubernatorial approval to be placed on the ballot, will ask voters: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to remove legislators’ ability to set their own salaries, and instead establish an independent, citizens-only council to prescribe salaries for legislators?”
Legislators, former legislators, lobbyists and former lobbyists would be barred from serving on the council. Members would be picked by the governor and the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and would come from all congressional districts. The council would have equal membership from Republicans and Democrats.
In three states that have similar councils, legislative pay is higher than it is in Minnesota.
In California, one of the three, lawmakers make $90,000 a year, plus $141 a day for each day they are in session. With tough economic times, California’s council decreased lawmakers’ pay recently.
The Washington state council has frozen legislative pay at $42,000 a year since 2008. Oklahoma lawmakers make $38,400 a year, plus $147 a day for expenses.
In Idaho, which also has an outside commission with power over pay, legislators make less than their Minnesota counterparts. Their salary is $16,400, plus $122 a day for lodging and more for travel, according to the National Council on State Legislatures.
Morgan Cullen, of the National Council, said he does not know of any state that has seen litigation to stop the independent councils from spending state money.
“This is the right direction to go,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. “The people are going to decide.”
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @RachelSB