The lone statewide ballot issue going to Minnesota voters this election could have a considerable impact on state legislators — potentially providing their best shot at a pay raise in nearly two decades.

Voters are being asked if the state’s constitution should be amended to create a citizen panel to set the salaries for lawmakers. The new committee would replace the current system, in which legislators vote on their own pay.

“We can’t build a good legislature that works hard without a field of very, very quality people there,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a Cook DFLer and main backer of higher legislative pay. “I think it’s going to get harder and harder over time, if the compensation doesn’t at least make up for what you give up.”

The issue is coming to the forefront as the state has become larger and more complex, with a multibillion-dollar budget, a menu of big challenges looming in the educational system, and an increasingly complex state health and human services department.

Unlike past ballot questions on same sex-marriage and voter ID, neither side has mounted a campaign or spent any money to influence voters.

Opponents say the ballot proposal is poorly worded and misleading, promising a cleaner system by letting elected officials sidestep the politically precarious move of raising their own pay. Several current and former legislators say the question opens up an even bigger discussion about why legislators’ $31,140 annual salary hasn’t gone up in 17 years, how that affects who serves at the Capitol, and what taxpayers should expect from a citizen Legislature.

Bakk, who has held state office since being elected in 1994, said legislators’ salaries have been frozen since 1999 because it’s become too much of a political gamble to raise them, especially for House members who must run for re-election every two years.

The work

Serving as a state senator or representative is technically a part-time responsibility, requiring legislators to make the trek to St. Paul for several months each year. In addition to their salaries, House members can get a per diem allowance of $77; senators get $96 per day, plus reimbursement for expenses like mileage. Outstate legislators can get up to $1,200 per month for a housing allowance. The top six leaders in the House and Senate are eligible for an additional $12,456 each year.

Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, a critic of the citizen-panel idea, said it makes sense that inching up the salary number has been a tough sell. The proposal on ballots this year grew out of a 2013 attempt by legislators to vote on a pay raise. It passed in the Senate, failed in the House, and eventually prompted a compromise: asking voters in 2016 to turn over the duties to a new panel that could include no current or former elected officials.

“The public rightfully wants to hold legislators accountable,” Dean said. “Any pay increase is going to be heavily scrutinized by the public, and it should be.”

Dean said he believes the proposal is a way to trick voters into approving a committee that’s likely to approve a pay increase.

“Most Minnesotans would want us to present a reasonable pay increase over time and justify that and vote for it, as opposed to turning it over to a commission which is basically going to automatically increase the pay,” he said.

Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, who wrote the proposal along with Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, said he’s never been an advocate for a pay raise, focusing instead on what he sees as the route to broader accountability.

“Nobody can argue that this citizen’s council is not objective,” he said.

A lost bet

Former Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, who served from 1987 to 2013, said the demands of the modern Legislature make it far more than a part-time gig — and a major challenge for middle-class Minnesotans who can’t take extended breaks from their jobs.

During his years in the Legislature, Rukavina said he lived frugally, growing his own vegetables, chopping his own firewood and driving an old car on the 400-mile round trip from his home to the Capitol. He recalled how constituents were frequently surprised when they learned what he and other legislators made each year. Once a janitor at the St. Louis County Courthouse wagered $100 that Rukavina made more than he did. The janitor lost, though Rukavina said he never collected on the bet.

“I got called on Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, two o’clock in the morning, to help people out,” he said. “Yes, it’s supposed to be a citizen Legislature, but there were times I wondered how in the heck I could continue.”

When former Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, left office during his first term, he pointed to low pay as one of the deciding factors. As the primary earner for his family, Petersen said he couldn’t make the numbers work.

“The question in my mind for the citizens of Minnesota is what do you want your Legislature to look like?” he said. “Would you like it to be more representative of the population at large, or do you prefer this sort of situation we have now where there is a limited number of people who do certain types of things: public-sector unions, attorneys, the independently wealthy or sole proprietors who have a trusted manager that can work in their stead?”

Other states

Legislative pay in other states — and who sets it — varies, along with legislators’ responsibilities. In California, for example, legislators are paid more than $100,000 per year, while in New Mexico, legislators are unpaid. In Iowa, they make $25,000 per year, and in Wisconsin the annual salary is nearly $51,000, plus per diem expenses.

In Minnesota, the state’s Compensation Council, which reviews public salaries, recommended in 2013 that legislators’ pay be increased by 33 percent, starting in 2015. At that rate, it would be about $41,400 per year. Even if legislative pay merely rose with inflation, it would be $45,018 today.

Former Rep. Doug Peterson, DFL-Madison, who served from 1991 to 2002, said the proposal is a way for the state to keep up with the demands put on the Legislature. He noted that lawmakers are asked to handle an increasingly complex job — including a budget that most recently hit $42 billion.

“We need to be reflective that we have quality people running for the Legislature. [It] isn’t a part-time job anymore,” he said. “With the size of the budget, it is a big deal.”