Republican state Sen. Branden Petersen of Andover is on one of my lists — the one with names of promising young legislators who’ve made a voluntary exit from elective office just when they seem poised to make a difference.
His name goes alongside Larry Hosch, Kelby Woodard, Kate Knuth, John Kriesel, John Berns — those names and more make me wonder whether Minnesota’s “citizen Legislature” is living up to that billing.
Petersen, first elected to the House in 2010 at age 24, announced July 6 that he won’t seek a second term in the Senate. He’ll leave the Legislature after the 2016 session, at the just-getting-started age of 30.
Was he pushed out by his party for his independent thinking on same-sex marriage, or his occasional display of a libertarian and/or bipartisan streak? I doubt it. He’s not the sort to be easily intimidated. Did he find he didn’t enjoy the work? Not judging from his eagerness to wade into deep lawmaking weeds on issues such as teacher evaluation and cellphone privacy.
Those reasons may apply to a few others who left the Legislature too soon. But more common — though not always publicly stated — was Petersen’s explanation: “I’m leaving primarily for family and financial reasons, which are interrelated.”
Like others before him, Petersen is finding it difficult to be both a legislator, paid $31,140 per year, and the primary breadwinner for a household that includes a wife who works part time and three children, ages 4, 3 and 11 months. He works as a car salesman when he’s not at the Capitol. To keep his family’s toehold on the middle class, he puts in a lot of sales hours when he’s not putting in a lot of lawmaking hours in St. Paul. He confessed that he’s even tried to do both jobs simultaneously, resulting in what he called a “crazy” juggling act.
“A lot of people will say, ‘You’re paid $31,000 for a part-time job. That’s decent.’ Well, just try getting another job that compensates you well when you tell them ‘I won’t be there for half of the year.’ There’s a limited number of things you can do when the Legislature is not in session. … It’s why there are very few legislators who work for someone else, like most middle-class people do, and are the primary breadwinners for their families.”
That’s reason to question how well Minnesota is living up to its constitutional intention to be governed by citizen-politicians who together reflect the adult population’s ages and stations in life.
Increasingly, legislative service looks like an activity primarily for those who are employed by the government (and thus contractually assured that their job will be waiting when the Legislature adjourns), supported by a successful spouse, independently wealthy, retired — or young, and in that case, not likely to stay long.
The result is a Legislature that’s older than it used to be, and less representative of middle-class families. That’s what I learned spending some quality time with the House of Representatives section of the 1971 Legislative Manual. Why 1971? It was the last odd-year session that was not followed by a regular session the following year. That makes it a worthy point of comparison for those — including Petersen — who think the Legislature ought to return to every-other-year sessions.
• In 1971, 56 of 134 House members — 42 percent — were in their 40s. Today, 29 House members, or 22 percent, are in that prime-of-life age cohort.
• In 1971, 17 of 134 had passed their 60th birthdays. In today’s House, 45 have.
• A quarter of the 1971 House was under age 40. Today it’s 16, for 12 percent.
• Two professions — farmers and lawyers — comprised nearly half of the 1971 House, with 32 of each. Today’s House includes six farmers and 14 lawyers — a change that says as much or more about what has happened to Minnesota’s economy in the past 44 years as about the Legislature. The big professional category in the 2015 House is “business,” dominated by self-employment.
One other note about the 1971 Legislature: It mustered the courage to give its successors a pay raise. (The state Constitution forbids each Legislature from raising its own pay.) The salary set for 1973 was $8,400 per year. Adjust for inflation, and that amount would be $49,322.52 today — $18,000 more than this year’s legislators are paid.
The last time such courage was exhibited was in 1997. That’s how long legislative salaries have been frozen. In 2013, legislators punted their pay question to the voters with a constitutional amendment. In 2016, voters will be invited to hand future decisions about legislative compensation to an independent panel appointed by the governor and the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Petersen recommends that amendment’s adoption, though he wishes it were not necessary. “In a perfect world, the Legislature would just appropriate the money for higher pay and be done,” he said. He also thinks that if Minnesotans were asked to choose whether to pay legislators more or compel them to spend less time in session, they’d opt for the latter.
About that, he’s probably right. But the only states that still have truly part-time legislatures also have much smaller populations and much less state involvement in matters like education and health care. The states Minnesota deems its population and policy peers have sessions at least as long as Minnesota’s, and often longer.
Why? One reason: Annual sessions are an aid to policy development. In many two-year lawmaking cycles, complex policy work started in year one is finished in year two, with much accomplished during the interim. That pattern that might not be as fruitful if interim work extended for two years, and was interrupted by an election.
Last week, two 22-term House members, DFLers Lyndon Carlson and Phyllis Kahn, surpassed the late Rep. Willard Munger’s record to become the state’s longest-serving House members. That milestone was an excuse to ask Carlson and Kahn whether they are troubled by the departures of talented newbies like Petersen, and if so, what should be done about it.
Early exits are worrisome, both said. Minnesota should pay its legislators more, both said. Both also said this: During the run-up to the 2016 amendment vote, Minnesotans ought to hear more straight talk about what legislative service requires. Carlson and Kahn arrived at the Legislature along with annual sessions in 1973. It’s been very nearly a full-time job ever since.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.