The Minnesota Senate on Tuesday is set to approve salary increases for legislators and the governor, who have had their pay frozen since 1999.
The raises, which would start taking effect in 2015, would be hefty. By 2016, legislators’ pay would go to $42,000 from the current $31,000 — an increase of 35 percent. The governor’s salary would rise to $128,000 a year from $120,000 now, although Gov. Mark Dayton has already said he would donate his increase.
The move heats up a reliable hot potato. For 15 years, politics have kept lawmakers from approving pay increases for themselves or the governor. Senators believe, despite the political risk, the frozen pay must thaw.
“It’s leadership,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. “It probably won’t be very popular with Minnesotans … but sometimes leadership is a little lonely.”
Dayton thinks lawmakers’ pay should increase even more, to $56,954, “approximately the same as the average household income of Minnesota families.”
Under the plan crafted and approved by the nonpartisan Minnesota Compensation Council, the governor would get a 3 percent pay increase in 2015 and another in 2016. The governor’s salary would be reviewed yearly after that, with increases tied to the Consumer Price Index. Gubernatorial pay has not risen in Minnesota since 1998 and ranks 32nd among the 50 states.
The measure, part of a larger measure that funds state government, also would set aside a long-standing law that caps pay for agency heads at 95 percent or less of what the governor makes. That has resulted in some state agency heads making little more than their top subordinates and, Dayton said, has cost the state some top prospective recruits.
“I have lost outstanding employees because someone else could offer them salaries 50 percent or even 100 percent higher than state government,” Dayton said in a statement. “I have also lost good prospects because their highest possible state salary would be far below what they are now earning.”
The measure would allow commissioners at large agencies, such as transportation, education and human services, to make up to 133 percent of the governor’s salary. Commissioners at smaller agencies, such as the Public Utilities Commission and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, could make up to 120 percent of the governor’s earnings.
If the plan becomes law, lawmakers would earn 33 percent of the governor’s salary and future raises would be tied to those for the governor. Legislators’ pay has been frozen at $31,140 since 1998. Seventeen states pay their lawmakers more. By 2016, they would earn $42,118.
Minnesota legislators do get to supplement their salaries with daily expense payments, known as per diems, which can add another $9,000 to the compensation for what technically is a part-time job.
House will not take up pay raises
The House, which is up for re-election next year, is not planning similar pay raise legislation.
“We are raising taxes and we think those taxes ought to go to schools, property tax relief and job creation and it’s just not our priority right now,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. However, Thissen said he would support a pay hike only if it had broad, bipartisan support.
The Senate plan currently does not appear to have that broad a level of support, which could kick the pay raise proposal into end-of-session negotiations between the governor, Senate and House.
Although it has been more than a decade since they’ve had a pay raise, and legislative leaders have said that compensation keeps some potential candidates from running, many said they could not bring themselves to support the pay hike.
Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, said lawmakers’ pay should go up, but given the financially shaky times, now is not the time. “I don’t think I’ll be voting for it. I think this is a bad time to do it,” Hall said.
Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul and sponsor of the pay increase provision, said that type of thinking is what has kept lawmakers’ pay stagnant for so long.
“It’s always difficult, but we haven’t raised the governor’s or the Legislature’s salary for 15 years and it has to be done sometime,” Pappas said. “There’s no good year.”