A conservative watchdog group that sued to force a raise for state lawmakers is now seeking to undo a court ruling in a separate but related agreement between the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton that preserved funding for the legislative branch for the next few months.
The Association for Government Accountability sued the Legislature in June trying to push lawmakers to enact a raise for themselves that was ordered earlier this year by a citizen committee. The 67 members of the Senate are collecting the new salary of $45,000 a year while 134 House members are still getting the previous salary of $31,140.
The association’s lawsuit over the pay has gotten tangled up with a separate legal dispute between Dayton and Republican legislative leaders. Lawmakers sued Dayton after he used a line-item veto to reject funding for the Legislature, an attempt by the DFL governor to force Republicans to reconsider a handful of tax cuts and policy measures from the legislative session earlier this year.
Even as the courts consider that dispute, Dayton and legislative leaders struck a deal to extend funding through October to avoid furloughs for legislative employees that would have begun shortly after July 1; Ramsey County Chief Judge John Guthmann, who’s hearing the case, signed off on that extension.
But Erick Kaardal, the attorney representing the watchdog group, said the judge acted in error. In filing court documents on Monday to intervene, Kaardal said that the judicial branch shouldn’t be involved in settling political disputes or settling state budgets. He pointed out that the citizen commission that boosted lawmakers’ pay originated after voters statewide approved a constitutional amendment to take questions of legislators’ pay out of the hands of lawmakers themselves.
“It’s a usurpation of the power of the Legislature and executive to determine spending. The court just can’t get involved to determine a political question,” Kaardal said, adding that the recently passed constitutional amendment “is being violated.”
The two top Republicans in the Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, took the opposite tack on the question of funding the citizen commission-mandated salary increases. The result is that state senators now make more than state representatives.
Gazelka, of Nisswa, said repeatedly during the legislative session that he believed lawmakers were bound to uphold the voters’ decision and raise pay. Daudt, of Crown, has been adamant that the Legislature, not voters, have the ultimate authority to fund lawmakers’ pay.
Gazelka and Daudt both declined to comment on Monday.
In March, when Daudt announced his plan to block the additional funding, he said he wasn’t sure whether his decision would prompt a court battle, but that he was convinced the Legislature could ignore the constitutional amendment.
“For us to accept that pay, when others are not getting that sort of pay increase, really would be wrong,” he said.
Minnesotans voted overwhelmingly last November — 77 percent to 18 percent — to strip lawmakers of the authority to set their own pay and to turn the decision over to a citizen committee. That group decided this spring to boost the salaries, which had not increased in nearly 20 years, to $45,000.