Bravo Espresso barista Andrew Meissner hears plenty of political chatter throughout the day from his coffee-loving customers. But one question had the Rochester coffee shop worker stumped.
Did he know there is a constitutional amendment on the November ballot?
"No, I did not," Meissner said.
And he is likely not alone. In a crowded presidential election year, the ballot measure has generated little interest. No groups have formed to support or oppose it.
What would the proposed amendment do?
The proposed amendment to the Minnesota Constitution would no longer leave it up to lawmakers and the governor to decide if legislators should get a pay raise. Instead, it would establish a bipartisan commission to determine lawmakers' pay. The ballot question asks voters, "Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to remove state lawmakers' power to set their own salaries, and instead establish an independent, citizens-only council to prescribe salaries of lawmakers?"
Why does Minnesota need a commission to set lawmakers' pay?
Supporters of the amendment there is an inherent conflict of interest in having lawmakers vote for their own salary increases. Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, sponsored the bill to put the amendment before the voters. Eken said he has been fighting for 10 years to revamp the way lawmakers' pay is set.
"It's a clear and glaring conflict of interest that is embedded in our constitution. The only way to remove it is with a constitutional amendment," Eken said.
Would amendment's passage mean guaranteed a pay hike for lawmakers?
Critics charge that the real motivation behind the amendment is to ensure that legislators get a salary increase. The last time lawmakers approved a salary hike was 1999. Lawmakers earn a salary of $31,141 per year. That does not include per diems for daily expenses, which can boost salaries by as much as 50 percent.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, opposes the amendment. He said an existing pay commission has repeatedly recommended that lawmakers' salaries be raised substantially.
"The people of Minnesota don't know it, but they are voting for a salary increase for legislators if they vote for this amendment, and every House and Senate member that voted for it knew that when they voted for it," Drazkowski said.
Who would be on the commission?
Backers of the amendment reject Drazkowski's claim, pointing to the makeup of the independent commission as proof. Under the proposed amendment, the governor and the Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice would each appoint a member to the commission from each of the state's congressional districts. Of the members appointed, half must be Democrats and the other half Republicans. In addition, none of the commission members can be a current or former legislator or spouse of a current legislators. They cannot be a current or former lobbyist, judge or constitutional office holder. They also cannot be a current employee of the legislature.
Do other states rely on a commission for legislative pay?
In most states, lawmakers decide whether to raise their salaries. Often, there are commissions that make recommendations on pay raises to lawmakers. However, a few states do rely on commissions to determine legislative salaries — including California. That state also has one of the highest salary rates for lawmakers in the nation — $100,113 per year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It is worth noting that unlike Minnesota, California has a full-time Legislature. California's commission also approved cuts to lawmakers' pay during the economic downturn.
While California lawmakers enjoy much higher salaries than those in most states, it's a very different story in Idaho. That state also uses a legislative pay commission, which has opted to set annual salaries for the part-time legislature at $16,684 per year.
What happens if voters approve the amendment?
Individuals would be appointed to the commission in January. By March 31 of each odd-numbered year, the commission would be required to set legislative salaries. The salary levels set by the commission would take effect by July 1 of that year.