Minnesota’s 201 state lawmakers have not had a salary increase in nearly two decades. But some members of the Legislature have managed to at least double their base salaries with hefty expense reimbursements.
A newly formed state panel, approved by voters last fall, is now meeting to consider an increase to the yearly legislative salary of $31,140, the same since 1998. Legislative expense records analyzed by the Star Tribune show how some lawmakers substantially supplement their earnings.
No lawmaker has been more effective at utilizing this system than Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. Since 2009, Bakk has collected more than $350,000 in reimbursements for expenses and in the extra pay lawmakers are eligible to receive during the legislative session, known as per diems. That’s nearly $30,000 greater than the next highest senator, records show. His base pay for most of that time was $43,596 a year; legislative leaders earn a little more than other members.
Bakk has also collected at least $70,000 from his own campaigns since 2009, renting space in his own home and for additional mileage expenses, according to campaign reports.
In a statement to the Star Tribune, Bakk cited the size of his northern Minnesota Senate district as a principal driver of high expenses.
“I pride myself on being responsive and accessible to the people I represent. The fact of the matter is, the people I represent are spread across 12,996 square miles,” Bakk said.
In November, voters approved a constitutional amendment that established the Legislative Salary Council — comprising nonlegislators — that will determine lawmaker pay. The intent of the amendment’s supporters was to wall off these decisions from partisan politics, which has been the main force preventing cost-of-living increases.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a retired county sheriff from Alexandria, had the highest per diem and expenses among Republican senators: $259,721 from 2009 to 2016, nearly doubling his yearly legislative pay for that period. He said that without the benefits to offset the expense of living in St. Paul, legislative service would be financially impossible for many lawmakers: “If it were less [money], I think you’re going to see good legislators say, ‘I can’t be pulled away from my job,’ ” Ingebrigtsen said.
House members, who have smaller districts and fewer constituents, averaged 58 percent lower expenses and per diems than their Senate colleagues in 2016, according to House and Senate records. The House allows $66 per diem in session, while the Senate allows $86.
Former Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, a DFLer from Plummer who retired last year after 35 years, said life in the Legislature is more of a financial burden than bonus. He needed two residences, many tanks of gas and vehicle maintenance to get to the Capitol, and to see constituents in his sprawling northwestern Minnesota district, which spans more than 7,500 square miles.
From 2009 to 2016, Stumpf received $323,041 in per diem and expense reimbursements.
A farmer and vintner, Stumpf drove 325 miles — a six-hour drive — to the Capitol during his tenure. He said low pay and expenses from representing far-flung districts has discouraged qualified candidates. “I don’t think being a legislator is a way to accumulate wealth,” he said.
Bakk, a high-profile fixture of statehouse politics who has shown statewide ambitions, has made many arrangements to accommodate a job that demands time in both the Twin Cities and his sprawling northeastern Minnesota district, which includes the entire Arrowhead region, parts of the Iron Range, and such disparate cities as Ely, Grand Marais and International Falls.
Year-round living expenses
Bakk’s primary residence is on Lake Vermilion. His wife, Laura, is a Senate aide for another Iron Range DFLer, David Tomassoni, and is required to report to work in St. Paul all year.
Despite his wife’s Capitol job, Bakk is entitled to a tax-free housing allowance because his district is more than 50 miles from St. Paul.
For years, Bakk used his housing allowance to rent a house in Maplewood, which they leased from a relative. All told, Bakk collected more than $125,000 in lodging allowance from 2009 to 2016, according to records.
Bakk, a retired union carpenter, declined interview requests for this story. Alyssa Siems Roberson, a spokeswoman, answered e-mailed questions: “Senators who qualify for the housing allowance are allowed to have their spouses stay or live with them regardless of where they may work,” she said.
Public records indicate that for much of the past decade, the Bakks lived in Maplewood in a 1,400-square-foot home owned by Laura Bakk’s brother and sister-in-law. They sold the house in 2015. Siems Roberson said the Bakks’ in-laws own and manage several houses as part of their small real estate business.
Bakk made a copy of the lease with the in-laws available to the Star Tribune. Dated 2001, it shows monthly rent of $1,050. At the time, Bakk was serving in the House, where the housing allowance was less than the $1,050 rent.
The housing allowance was increased in 2007. As majority leader and chairman of the Rules Committee, Bakk was instrumental in 2013 in raising the housing allowance again, from $1,200 to $1,500 per month. It passed the committee unanimously with GOP votes.
“As it turns out, over half of the members are actually taking money out of their pocket to cover the costs of their lease agreement, utilities and parking,” Bakk said at that time.
Rural legislators qualify to get these living expenses year-round, even for the majority of the year when the Legislature is not in session.
Last year, a bipartisan mix of 26 senators from outstate Minnesota received a lodging stipend, ranging from $12,936 to about $18,000 per year for Bakk and a few others.
After the DFL lost control of the Senate last November, Bakk convened his final meeting as rules chairman and urged an increase to the housing allowance for outstate Minnesota senators to $2,000 per month. Republicans objected, and the committee raised the allowance to $1,800 instead. They also added a new benefit of $200 per month during the legislative session for mileage expenses for constituent service.
Bakk’s Senate campaign paid $8,400 to rent space in his own home from 2011 to 2016. Siems Roberson said having a separate office space in Bakk’s home was important to campaign activities like fundraising and candidate recruitment calls.
When Bakk’s Senate, campaign and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board driving mileage expenses are added from 2011 to 2016, they come to at least $103,000. That means he was reimbursed for 206,000 miles of driving, or about 94 miles per day, 365 days per year, for six years.
In his statement to the Star Tribune, Bakk pointed out that his district is larger than nine states and encompasses both the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest, which are not passable with direct routes.
“On days that I have meetings with constituents in Grand Marais and International Falls, I’m driving four hours across almost 230 miles — not including the initial drive from my home,” he said.
Star Tribune data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.