In politics, what’s expeditious in the near term can be detrimental in the long run. Today’s case in point: The Minnesota Legislature’s handling of its own compensation.
For nearly two decades, the Legislature has done the politically expeditious thing. It has not raised its own pay since 1997. Compensation for legislators has been stuck at a lean $31,140 a year, though legislators are also eligible for per-diem payments of up to $86 for senators and $66 for House members, and lodging reimbursement of up to $1,200 a month for those who must move to St. Paul during sessions.
That salary is not sufficient to attract the caliber of candidates this state’s government needs to fill a job that is billed as part time, but in reality is full time during sessions and part time for the rest of the year. Low compensation is complicating candidate recruitment, operatives in both parties confide. Over time, it risks populating the Legislature with people of independent means and/or those young enough — or desperate enough — to settle for a low-income job.
That’s not just our opinion. It’s the considered judgment of the bipartisan, purely advisory Minnesota Compensation Council, which in 2009 — after 10 years of unheeded calls for a salary boost for legislators — warned, “If elected public servants aren’t fairly compensated, we may not be able to attract highly qualified candidates who are broadly representative of Minnesota’s citizenry.”
That same report advised, “We conclude that the current statutory mechanism for adjusting salaries for these positions does not work. The council recommends that the Legislature consider passing a bill placing a constitutional amendment on the November 2010 ballot asking the citizens of the state to restructure the Compensation Council so that it would have responsibility for directly establishing the salaries … and per diem for legislators.”
The 2013 Legislature finally took that advice and put the pay question on this year’s ballot. On Nov. 8, voters should say yes to a constitutional amendment that would take the power to raise legislative salaries out of the Legislature’s hands.
The amendment does not guarantee that legislative pay will be adjusted. Rather, it removes electioneering considerations from the pay question by entrusting legislative salary decisions to people whose names will not be on the ballot in the next general election campaign.
If the amendment passes, a 16-member salary council — eight DFLers, eight Republicans — would be formed to decide legislator pay every two years. The governor and the Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice would choose its members; legislators past or present, their spouses, lobbyists, judges and state employees need not apply.
We find it telling that neither major party has mounted a campaign against the amendment. Only the small Libertarian Party has urged its defeat, suggesting that the change would diminish the power of the voters and strengthen the hand of the governor. We believe a bigger risk for Minnesota voters is the likelihood that the Legislature will become ever less representative of the state’s population if legislators are not fairly paid.