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Panel recommends pay increases for Minn. government leaders

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ST. PAUL — Recommendations slated for action Monday call for the first salary increases for Minnesota's governor and legislators since the late 1990s, as well as a substantial restructuring of how top state agency managers are paid.

The Compensation Council, a panel with appointees representing all three branches of state government, delivered a draft plan last week to top lawmakers. In it, the 16-member board says stagnant salaries are making it hard to recruit and retain good people who can make more outside government.

If adopted, the governor's $120,303-a-year base pay would go up 3 percent in 2015 and again in 2016. It's unchanged since 1998.

Legislators would see an even bigger bump because their pay would be set at one-third of what the governor makes. That would take their $31,140-a-year salaries to $40,890 in 2015. Their last raise was in 1999.

The proposal could still change before Monday evening's vote by the council, and no pay increases would occur unless the Legislature and governor ratify any or all recommendations. Proposed pay increases often get hung up because lawmakers worry it will seem like they are taking care of themselves with public money. The state constitution dictates that no legislative pay increase can take effect until after the following House election, which in this case is 2014.

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Council member Bob Schroeder, a onetime chief of staff to then-Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said he supports the recommendations and thinks they will probably fare better than prior proposals given that one party controls all of state government. The Compensation Council never even convened in the two years Republicans led the Legislature and plans produced before that fell flat.

"However challenging it is going be for legislators to vote for this, I think we have a responsibility not for existing legislators but for the future Legislature to recommend a salary that we think is appropriate for a state of our size and the size of our budget," said council member Ann Mulholland, a nonprofit foundation executive.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he's heard interest from members of both parties in discussing higher pay, but he isn't enthusiastic about the prospects of reaching accord. Neither is House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

"I wish we could have the conversation without it becoming a political football. Inevitably, it does," Daudt said.

For years, lawmakers have grumbled about the pay scale being a hardship. Minnesota technically has a part-time Legislature, but the jobs are mostly full-time for the four to five months of the session. That makes it hard for lawmakers to work a regular job for much of the year.

National Conference of State Legislatures statistics rank Minnesota legislator base pay at 17th nationally, but they also get daily allowances for meals and incidental expenses. The national median legislator base pay in 2012 was $28,000.

The governor is eligible to live in the state's official Summit Avenue residence and gets around in a vehicle driven by a state trooper. The first family's meals are deducted from the governor's paycheck. According to the council, the governor's base pay ranks 32nd among the states. In neighboring Wisconsin, the governor makes $144,423 per year.

"We are not saying that we are competing nationally for our governors, for we recognize this is a political office," the council writes in its draft recommendations. "The point is that other states have recognized the value of this office in managing a multibillion dollar enterprise and, as a result, these other states have increased the salary paid for those serving in these critical positions."

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But the chief executive's pay has a bearing on what those who work under him earn. Commissioners of state agencies are capped at 95 percent of what the governor makes. Under the plan, they would be eligible for paychecks that far exceed that of their boss. Going forward, commissioners could earn up to 133 percent of the governor's salary.

The state attorney general, auditor and secretary of state also earn a set percentage of the governor's wage, which differs by office. A pay increase for the governor would mean one for them as well.

As part of the proposal, state judges would see a more immediate pay increase, with their varying salaries rising 4 percent annually for the next four years beginning in July. Data gathered by the council shows judges make barely more than new associates at leading law firms and less than the prosecutors who argue cases before them. Judicial pay increases have been adopted more readily than recommendations for other posts.

Tom Fraser, chairman of the council, said in an interview that the state risks missing out on top executives if it doesn't adjust its pay scale.

"It will always be true that government will pay less than the private sector as a general rule, and that's to be expected," Fraser said. "When the differential is so great that it is difficult to recruit and keep people, that's a problem."

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