Editorial: Shameless legislators line up for shutdown pay

  • Updated: August 23, 2011 - 8:09 PM

Some first turned down checks but then changed their minds.

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It's pathetic that even more Minnesota legislators have taken advantage of the recent state government shutdown to turn public service into public self-service.

There's already been justifiable outrage around the state over legislators who decided that they were entitled to a paycheck during the shutdown while many of those they serve -- 22,000 state workers-- had no choice but to go without pay for 20 days.

Many private sector workers, whose employers depended on state business or oversight, also lost their jobs. Sixty-four percent of House members thought they were entitled to pay, while 79 percent of those in the Senate continued collecting checks.

The latest twist in the saga came Monday, when the Star Tribune's Eric Roper revealed that many House members who volunteered to go without pay during the shutdown have conveniently changed their minds now that the State Capitol is emptied out and August vacations have depleted the ranks of news reporters.

According to a list released by House officials, 10 DFLers and seven Republicans were slated to get full back pay retroactively -- typically about $1,600.

Another Democrat, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said he'd requested half his normal pay, an attempt at solidarity based on the erroneous belief that state workers got half of their pay through unemployment insurance. Some did, but many did not.

There's something especially odious about this latest batch clamoring to get paid after the fact. They wanted it both ways: to look virtuous for not taking the money initially, yet still grabbing the cash in the end. Those who were upfront at the beginning at least weren't being sneaky.

Howls of outrage from outed legislators began almost immediately after the story broke Monday. Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said via e-mail that there had been a "HUGE misunderstanding here. What I THOUGHT I signed prior to the shutdown regarding my pay was that I would NOT take pay during the shutdown."

Scott, to her credit, has now asked House officials not to pay her.

Many other legislators said they'd done nothing wrong because they'd donated some or all of the money to charities, a claim an editorial writer wasn't always able to verify.

Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, declined to say who he'd given the money to, but added: "I can spend the money better than the state.''

But making a donation to charity doesn't excuse the about-face on pay. Those laid off during the shutdown no doubt have pet causes, too. Yet they weren't given an option to take the money and give it away -- and get a tax write-off in the process.

This is arrogance on the part of legislators, not altruism.

It's also bizarre that some of the most vocal advocates of public employee wage freezes and cuts in government services for the needy, such as Republican Rep. Steve Drazkowski, were on the I-want-my-money list. So much for shared sacrifice.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, is one of 32 House representatives who did the honorable thing by foregoing shutdown pay permanently. He plans to propose legislation that cuts off lawmakers' pay and benefits if there are future shutdowns.

That bill should be a priority next session. It's a state embarrassment that it's even needed.

 

  • PALTRY PLEDGE

    "By seeking back pay, it has become clear that legislators took a hollow pledge of support for state workers. No wonder so many people distrust government when legislators say one thing, but do another."

    JIM MONROE, executive director, Minnesota Association of Professional Employees

    • • •

    To view the list of legislators who requested retroactive pay, go to www.startribune.com/a619

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