House Speaker Kurt Daudt finally came around last week on a legislative salary matter that we thought Minnesota voters settled last Nov. 8. Under pressure from a lawsuit filed by two House members, the GOP leader accepted the higher salaries set by the new Legislative Salary Council, as authorized by a 2016 constitutional amendment that was approved with a 76 percent vote.
Daudt’s decision was one that, to their credit, the leaders of the GOP Senate majority made without quibble or fuss when the council acted in March. It shouldn’t have been a hard choice.
Accepting the council’s action is consistent not only with the newly amended state Constitution but also with sound stewardship of a lawmaking institution whose members were being paid a paltry $31,140 a year and had not had a salary increase since 1999. Low salaries had become an impediment to candidate recruitment and a spur to early departures from legislative service.
What’s more, the council is a bipartisan, geographically representative body appointed by the governor and the Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice. With former state economist Tom Stinson as its chair, it commands respect.
Daudt, R-Crown, initially refused the new $45,000 annual salary the council set, objecting to a 45 percent pay hike in one stroke. He also seemed wary of subjecting himself and his fellow Republicans to any accusation that they had been party to raising their own salaries. That possibility remained despite the constitutional change because the Legislature and the governor, not the Salary Council, continue to set the House’s and Senate’s operating budget, which includes the salary appropriation.
On July 21, Daudt reversed course. “In light of recent court rulings and with the advice of counsel, it has become increasingly clear that the Minnesota House is constitutionally required to pay legislators the prescribed amount,” he conceded in a statement.
House and Senate leaders should seal that understanding by establishing an open and standing appropriation that changes automatically at the Salary Council’s bidding. That would create a statutory hurdle for future legislators to climb if they are tempted to play politics with their own pay.
Legislators should bow to the council’s judgment in one other way. They should pay heed to its recommendation to eliminate per diem, the fixed daily compensation that legislators receive during sessions. Per diem — $66 per day in the House, $86 per day in the Senate — is justified as reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses. But it bears no relationship to actual costs and lacks the transparency that compensation for public work should have.
The council urged that per diem be scrapped. Instead, “members should be reimbursed for their reasonable business expenses, as other organizations routinely do for their employees.” If Daudt still wants to rein in legislative compensation, reforming per diem would be a fine way to start.