Minnesota House staffers will be getting their first across-the-board pay raise since 2008.
The House Committee on Rules and Legislative Administration voted Tuesday to institute a series of pay raises for the House's 225 staffers over the next three years, along with opportunity for merit pay increases. Lawmakers also increased the combined budgets of its committees and the Republican minority caucus to $287,000.
"You hire good people and you treat them well," said Rep. Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul, before the 14-6 committee in favor of the staff raises. Several of the committee's Republican members voted against the measure.
The vote means that permanent House staffers who have been at their jobs since Jan. 1, 2011 will get a lump sum salary adjustment of 3.5 percent, adjusting their 2012 salary upwards by 3.5 percent. Permanent employees will also see a 2 percent general pay increase for 2013, 2014 and 2015. Temporary employees will also be eligible for pay increases, starting in 2014. Employees with good performance evaluations would also be eligible for merit pay increase of between 3.5 percent and those with excellent evaluations could be eligible for merit pay increases of up to 4 percent.
Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, balked at the cost of the raises -- $2.8 million in 2014-15 alone. She noted that some employees, if they received every possible wage and merit pay increase, could see their salaries increase by 17.5 percent by 2015.
But Democrats on the committee pointed out that the cost of living has gone up since 2008, while legislative salaries have remained flat. The increase, they said, would bring House salaries in line with the executive branch and allow lawmakers to recruit and retain the best workers for the job.
The vote does not affect salaries for state Senate staffers. The Senate rules committee has not yet scheduled a hearing to discuss salary issues.
The Rules Committee also signed off on larger budgets for House committees. Last session, feeling the budget crunch, committees operated with a $158,000 budget, and only ended up using $79,000 of that total. The committee budget for the rest of the 2013-14 session will be $287,000.
Republicans objected, questioning why the increase was necessary. House Majority Leader Erin Murphy noted that previous legislatures, both Republican and Democratic, had committee budgets two or three times as large. Any unused portion of the committee budget is returned to the House coffers at the end of the session.
Anderson questioned specific committee budgets: Why did Ways and Means get an $8,000 increase in its budget? Why would newly-created DFL committees, like the Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs, need a budget of $7,000.
The majority of the money, she was told, will go to pay per diems and other expenses to bring lawmakers into St. Paul for off-session hearings like the one the rules committee held Tuesday, or to allow lawmakers to hold field hearings around the state to give far-flung communities a chance to participate. Just bringing all 30-plus members of the Ways and Means Committee together for a summer hearing costs almost $2,000 in lawmaker per diems.
The committee budgets, including a $50,000 budget for the GOP caucus, passed by a vote of 11-9, with Republicans voting against.
Minnesota brought in $1.4 billion into the state coffers in May, 1.9 percent higher than the February forecast had estimated.
So far this year, the state has raised $324 million more in net general fund revenues than expected. The results are preliminary and could change when the final tax payments are calculated in July.
Preliminary estimates from Minnesota Management and Budget found income and corporate tax revenue up for the month, balancing out a slight dip in sales tax revenue.
Gov. Mark Dayton signed a $2.1 billion tax bill into law Thursday, along with a host of other bills passed in the final hours of the session.
Along with the new tax bill - which includes a $1.60-per-pack hike in cigarette taxes and tax increases on the wealthiest Minnesotans -- Dayton also signed off on the massive $11.3 billion Health and Human Services budget, a jobs bill, the veterans services budget and a host of other provisions passed in the final days of the legislative session.
Other provisions signed into law Thursday afternoon included: the omnibus data practices bill; the public safety finance bill; the omnibus retirement bill; the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance and Policy bill, the transportation finance bill, and changes to state elections policies.
Gov. Mark Dayton is facing a Minnesota electorate that is split on how well he is doing his job.
According to a new Public Policy Polling poll, completed just before the legislative session concluded on Monday, 49 percent of Minnesotans give him high approval rating and 47 percent give him failing marks. Those numbers are significantly down from January, when 53 percent of Minnesotans approved of the job he was doing and 39 percent did not.
Despite Minnesotans mixed feelings about the governor, they still favor him over potential Republican challengers. He has double digit leads in head to head match ups against 2010 opponent Tom Emmer and Republican candidates Scott Honour and Jeff Johnson. He has similar leads over Republicans Julie Rosen, David Hann, Dave Thompson and Kurt Zellers, all of whom have said they are considering a run.
Democrats can find other good news in the poll.
It found that both DFL and GOP legislators are more unpopular than popular but Republicans are even less popular than Democrats. According to the poll, 36 percent of Minnesotans approve of DFL lawmakers and 23 percent approve of Republicans. The DFL also has a narrow lead on a generic legislative ballot.
The poll also found that Minnesotans continue to be split on same sex marriage with 49 percent supporting and 45 percent opposing. The Legislature and Dayton legalized same sex marriage this year.
On other legislative issues:
The poll included 38 percent Democrats; 27 percent Republicans and 35 percent independents but more people in the poll -- 38 percent -- described themselves as conservative than liberal -- 32 percent.
The poll had a margin of sampling error of 3.7 percent.
Gov. Mark Dayton struck out millions of dollars in disputed funding for Metro parks before signing the new Legacy budget into law.
"This decision is extremely difficult for me," Dayton wrote in a letter to House and Senate leaders Thursday. "I attach great importance to keeping my word. Unfortunately, in this instance, I have given contradictory assurances to legislators during the past few days and to thousands of Minnesotans during the past few years. I have decided that I must honor my promise to those citizens."
The $494 million Legacy omnibus pitted lawmakers against the state's Outdoor Heritage Council and other groups. Lawmakers voted to steer $6.3 million to the Metropolitan Council for grants to restore and endangered habitats and another $3 million to battle aquatic invasive species, even though those projects had not been vetted by the council.
The merits of the projects weren't in question, but the way they found their way into the bill brought sharp criticism from outdoor and sporting groups, who feared the Legislature would begin loading future Legacy bills with pork projects.
In a letter to the governor, council member Ron Schara warned: "Funding the metro parks project in this way would set a very bad precedent. Instead of competing before the Council, special interests will bombard the Legacy legislative committees with projects that waste taxpayer dollars and we will end up with one big pork bill. If you do not put things right, the sportsmen will never again believe that it is in their interest to support a tax raise as a way to fund outdoor habitat programs. As the pressure on outdoor habitat increases and the funds dry up, we will all lose."
Dayton said he only agreed to allow the disputed provisions into the final version of the Legacy bill in an effort to break an end-of-session deadlock between House and Senate negotiators.
"At the time, I hoped that the thousands of Minnesotans, who are deeply committed to the work of the Lessard-Sams Council, would accept our compromise," Dayton wrote. "Since the bill's passage, however, I have heard from many organizations, representing thousands of citizens, who believe my approval of those two items would betray the promises I have made repeatedly during the past four years to respect the council's decisions."
Dayton noted that Metro parks are already $65 million from the Legacy bill, which also includes more than $18 million to deal with aquatic invasive species.