Our View: Legislators can't win if they set their own wages
If you haven't received a pay increase since 1999, nobody would blame you if you asked your boss for a raise.
But when you're a state legislator and voters are your boss, the issue becomes fraught with re-election peril. You don't want to hand your next opponent a campaign issue, especially when many voters see Minnesota's annual legislative salary of $31,140 as handsome compensation for a part-time job.
However, the reality is that lawmaking isn't a part-time profession anymore. While the Legislature is in session from early January to late May, lawmakers are working overtime. The workload drops off after adjournment, but even in the summer and fall, the time adds up when it's spent responding to constituents, doing interim committee work, attending public forums — and, of course, campaigning. The National Council of State Legislatures, which tracks legislators' hours and compensation in all 50 states, estimates Minnesota lawmakers average 70 percent of full-time employment — nearly 30 hours a week — doing legislative business year-round.
The demands on a politician have reached a point where the Legislature will be increasingly composed of the people who are independently wealthy, retired or married to someone with a well-paying job. Moreover, the pay for full-time legislative assistants has far surpassed the $31,140 that Minnesota pay its legislators.
"I had legislators — really good ones — come to me and say, 'I can't afford to do this anymore,' and they quit," said Duane Benson, R-Lanesboro, who served in the Legislature for 14 years, including six years as the Senate minority leader. "You wouldn't allow that to happen in any other field."
Recently, the Compensation Council, a 16-member group representing the three branches of Minnesota's government, recommended that the annual salary of state legislators be increased from $31,140 to $40,890. The Legislature, which is in the position to vote itself a pay raise, is unlikely to act on the recommendation, even though the cost of living has risen by more than one-third since their last salary increase in 1999.
Since then, lawmakers understandably have taken back-door approaches to increasing their compensation. Legislators can claim per-diem expense payments of $86 a day for senators and $66 a day for House members. Lawmakers outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area have housing allowances of of up to $1,200 a month. Legislators also can receive reimbursements for mileage, travel and communications expenses, with a monthly maximum of $125 for senators and $75 for House members.
Some states, such as Ohio, have a more transparent approach. Ohio pays an annual salary of $60,583 with no per-diem payments, meal or housing allowances. Contrast that with Minnesota, where we pay 67 senators and 134 representatives slightly more than $31,000, plus per diems, to set policy for a state with a nearly $38 billion biennial budget. At another level of Minnesota government, Minneapolis City Council members make $80,345 a year and Hennepin County commissioners $90,276.
While we're not going to recommend legislators be paid at the level as county and city officials in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, we welcome an alternative plan introduced this session by Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley. Eken has proposed a constitutional amendment that would replace the compensation council with a new bipartisan commission. Eken's bill would have with eight members appointed by the governor and eight appointed by the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. This body would set legislative salaries, thus ending that strange situation in which legislators set their own salaries.
"I have always felt that money shouldn't be the reason people run for office," Eken said. "But it shouldn't be the reason that people leave public office, either. The pay should be adequate so that regular people have the opportunity to serve."
Eken, who served five terms in the state House before being elected to the Senate in 2012, said the proposed amendment addresses the "conflict of interest problem." If the bill passes both chambers, the amendment could be on the ballot in 2014.
The ballot question on Eken's bill clearly asks, "Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that salary for legislators will be prescribed by a compensation council instead of by the Legislature?"
The answer is yes. Of all the political decisions our legislators are expected to make, their pay shouldn't be one of them.