Minnesota legislators will soon receive their first pay raise in nearly 20 years.
Approved Friday by the Legislative Salary Council, the base salary for the state's 201 legislators will jump from $31,140 to $45,000 a year, a 45 percent increase.
The Salary Council is a new board of nonlegislators whose job it is to set legislative pay. Voters authorized it in the last election by approving a constitutional amendment that ended the practice of lawmakers voting on their own salaries. It's made up of seven members appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and another seven by Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea.
"I never thought that in my life, I would ever feel mixed emotions about getting a $14,000 pay raise," Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, remarked on Twitter. The job comes with long hours and takes many away from families and careers for months at a time, but taxpayer-funded salaries are a sensitive topic for candidates who face voters every two or four years.
Requests to lawmakers for comment on the pay increase were largely ignored.
The intent of the constitutional amendment's supporters was to wall off pay decisions from partisan politics, which has been the driving force preventing cost-of-living increases. The raise, which will take effect July 1, will cost the state about $2.8 million annually. The Legislature, which is in the midst of writing a two-year budget that will top $40 billion, will have to approve the appropriation.
Dayton has long said members of the Legislature are underpaid. He applauded the new salary at a Friday news conference.
"That's in the ballpark of what I thought it ought to be," he said.
"Hopefully the Legislature will provide the funding necessary, and we can take this off the backs of legislators who make a real commitment of time and finances in order to serve," Dayton said.
According to the council's research, if lawmakers had received pay increases commensurate with inflation since 1999, they would make $46,570. The median Minnesota household income in 2015 was $68,730.
The new salary puts Minnesota legislators more on par with elected commissioners of larger counties and lawmakers in Wisconsin and Washington state. The last increase for legislators came in 1998.
Sherrie Pugh, a Dayton appointee to the council who lost a Senate race last year, said stagnant legislator salaries have degraded the pool of potential candidates: "Without an increase, it would limit potential quality candidates from running. A young person with student debt or a single head of household couldn't afford to be in the Legislature," she said.
Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, likened the constitutional amendment on legislative pay to a bait-and-switch.
"I think if the voters had known this would happen, they would have opposed it," he said.
The council also agreed to recommend that lawmakers end legislative per diems — the practice of allowing House members to claim $66 per day and senators $86 in expenses during legislative sessions. Lawmakers should be reimbursed for expenses rather than given a daily stipend, the council agreed, though final language on the recommendation is still to be decided at a meeting March 17.
As the Star Tribune reported in February, some lawmakers more than double their salary once accounting for expenses, including the tax-free daily stipend but also mileage and lodging.
"There was agreement that all benefits need to be more transparent," Pugh said.
Unlike the pay increase, however, the council's recommendation on ending the per diem is not binding, and the Legislature can ignore it.