Here’s a peek at my diary from the last days of the 2016 session: Waiting. Tweeting about the lack of news. Waiting. Noticing who won’t be seated at legislative desks next year. Wondering why.
The not-running count as of week’s end: 22 legislators won’t return — 20 because they are leaving elective office, one (Sen. Terri Bonoff) because she’s seeking a U.S. House seat and one (Rep. Joe Atkins) because he’s seeking a seat on the Dakota County Board. In addition, five House members, all DFLers, plan to run for the Senate this fall.
I consider that tally reassuring. It’s about a 10 percent departure rate, which is in keeping with previous non-redistricting years. Two months ago, retirement announcements were coming at such a rapid clip that Minnesotans who consider institutional memory a good thing in their state lawmaking body were asking me to sound a civic alarm.
The note of alarm in my diary is a personal one. How can it be that I’m covering the final term of state Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, when it seems not long ago that I covered the legislative retirement announcements of her father, state Rep. Mike Sieben, and uncle, House Speaker Harry (Tex) Sieben?
I have yet to mark the retirement of a legislator whose grandfather I also covered in the Legislature. I suppose there’s some solace in that.
Sieben’s decision to leave bothers me for two other reasons. One, she’s part of an exodus of women from the Legislature that’s disproportionately high. Though women hold just a third of the state’s 201 legislative seats, half of the 22 departees are female.
I won’t argue that the Legislature is a hostile environment for women — nor did Sieben when I caught up with her last week. I will argue that with its long hours and harsh partisanship, the Legislature can be a hostile environment for humans, male and female.
The stewards of this representative democracy have an obligation to keep legislative service desirable for both genders and to strive for something closer to gender balance. The Legislature needs the diversity of viewpoints and life experiences that women bring. Diary note: Be sure to count the female candidates when the legislative candidate filing period closes on May 31.
The other reason to fret about Sieben’s decision concerns not my age, but hers. She is 39 years old and completing her 14th year in office. As assistant majority leader, she’s groomed and ready for a prominent role in the Legislature’s next generation of leadership.
That generation has begun to look awfully small at the Legislature. A pattern has emerged in recent years. Two demographic categories are evident — people in their late 50s and older, who seek to make public service a career capstone, and people in their 20s and early 30s, trying to build a résumé.
People in neither category stay long. (That’s an argument against term limits. Turnover in the Minnesota Legislature is already high — too high, one might argue, given the expertise good legislators need.)
The Legislature’s midlife ranks have thinned. Last year, I compared the ages of today’s House members with those in 1971, the year before the Legislature switched from biennial to annual sessions. Then, 56 of 134 House members — 42 percent — were in their 40s. Today, just 22 percent are in that prime-of-life cohort. Meanwhile, the share of House members past age 60 has more than doubled.
The result is that the “citizen Legislature” isn’t as representative of the whole citizenry as it ought to be. The generation that bears much of the burden of making Minnesota work each day doesn’t have the voice it deserves.
A prime reason is obvious: Legislative salaries have been stuck at $31,140 since 1997. Pay that low both shrinks the pool of possible legislative candidates and tilts it toward the young and the old.
Sieben, of Newport, does not say flatly that she’s leaving in hopes of earning more money. But as the mother of three children, she says she felt she needed to establish a career outside the Legislature, and could not do so while continuing a demanding but purportedly “part-time” job.
“For the amount of time that being a legislator entails, both the intensity during the session and running for election, the pay should be higher,” Sieben said. “Legislators work hard and find it difficult to have other jobs.
“I hear from people who think we make more than $100,000 a year. They’re shocked to learn that we don’t. If the public becomes educated about our pay and the fact that it hasn’t been adjusted for 19 years, I would hope they would agree that we need a change.”
Here’s where Minnesota voters come in: A constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot will allow voters to take the power to set legislative pay out of the hands of the Legislature. The amendment would give that authority to an independent commission of 16 members, eight appointed by the governor and eight appointed by the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The amendment does not guarantee that a pay raise for legislators will ensue. The commission would be free to make that determination. But an advisory council that lacked the power to impose a raise started recommending one about 15 years ago. The idea of a constitutionally established pay commission springs from that body’s final recommendation, issued in frustration after years of being ignored by the Legislature.
Here’s a hunch: Plenty of Minnesotans are going to be displeased by the outcome of the 2016 session. You’ll hear muttering about legislators meeting for 11 weeks and accomplishing so little that they did not earn their pay.
Before joining that chorus, consider the possibility that one reason for dysfunction at the statehouse is not that legislators are paid too much, but too little.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.