The Legislative Salary Council — the panel voters created by constitutional amendment and empowered to set legislators’ salaries — demonstrated its worth last week. It did its duty and more: It both raised legislators’ pay and pointed the way toward a more transparent compensation scheme for Minnesota’s 201 legislators.
The Legislature should pay heed and resist any temptation to use its power of the purse to impede the salary hike. Instead, as the council urged, it should eliminate per diem, the daily subsidy that masquerades as an expense payment but functions as a backdoor salary supplement for legislators who opt to accept it. If the existing expense reimbursement system does not fairly compensate legislators for reasonable out-of-pocket costs associated with serving in St. Paul, it should be adjusted so that it does.
Legislators have long been loath to raise their own salaries, knowing that doing so invites criticism from political opponents. Annual pay has been stuck at $31,140 since 1999. While inaction on salaries may have been politically smart in the short run, it’s been bad for representative democracy in the long run. Low pay is often cited as the reason for promising young legislators to end their service prematurely, while too many emerging young civic leaders opt not to seek a legislative seat because they cannot afford to serve.
Awareness of that problem spurred legislators in 2013 to offer to surrender the power to raise their own salaries to a 16-member citizens’ council, to be appointed by the governor and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. That’s the gist of the constitutional amendment voters approved last fall with a whopping 76 percent majority.
The council, chaired by former state economist Tom Stinson, deliberated for two months before announcing the new salary: $45,000, effective July 1. That’s where salaries would be if they had climbed annually with inflation since 1999, the council noted. “It is important to preserve the Minnesota Legislature as a citizens’ legislature, a part-time legislature where any Minnesotan could consider serving and where a broad and diverse mix of backgrounds and life experiences are represented among the members,” a draft version of the council’s report explained. Action on the final report is expected on March 17.
That report should be the final word on the salary portion of legislators’ compensation. Any move by legislators to use the appropriations process to thwart the council’s action would not only be an act of bad faith, but also could be grounds for a court challenge.
Legislators who disapprove of a raise that large should note that they retain control of other components of their compensation, including health and pension benefits, expense reimbursements and per diem. Per diem came in for the council’s criticism, for good reason. Legislators can accept up to $66 per day in the House and $86 in the Senate during lawmaking sessions, producing a little-noticed salary bump that in 2016 averaged $4,524 for House members and $6,316 for senators. No good rationale justifies the House-Senate difference. The longer the Legislature is in session, the more per diem lawmakers can collect — a situation that some say invites lawmaking delays.
The council is giving legislators a prime opportunity to clean up its compensation act. For the good of their institution, they should take it.