Lawmakers’ pay could be determined by voters

An amendment on November’s ballot could change the state’s rules on legislative salaries.

Ryan Faircloth

Come November, Minnesota citizens could snatch control of state legislators’ salaries.

If passed, a ballot measure in the upcoming election would shift the decision to raise lawmakers’ salaries to a 16-person independent council. Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea would each pick one person from each of the state’s eight congressional districts.

Currently, Minnesota state legislators set their own salaries — about $31,000 per year. They also receive compensation for living and travel expenses during the legislative session.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said an independent group would eliminate the conflict of interest that comes with raising your own salary. There’s a lack of trust in government, he said.

“For most people, in their jobs, they don’t have the right to set their own salary,” Thissen said.

Still, the last time legislators received a pay increase was in 1999, and some believe lawmakers are due for a raise.

Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, said legislators have a tough time making ends meet with current salaries, but choose not to increase them in fear of political repercussions.

He said if legislators were to increase their salaries, opponents would likely run advertisements on how lawmakers are “lining their pockets.”

“They’ve got to choose between financial stress or ruin, or political stress or ruin,” Jacobs said. “That’s the choice right now.”

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, agreed with Jacobs and said public confusion on how much officials are paid can make it difficult to raise wages.

“Most people think the Legislature gets paid a lot of money,” Hann said, adding that individuals often mistake Congress for the state legislature.

Jacobs also said the job’s low salary can scare away potential candidates.

“The bottom line here is that Minnesota is pricing itself out of the market for really high quality citizens who would serve.”

Thissen said he has seen firsthand how potential legislators ultimately decided not to run due to the financial strain of the job.

“It is a tremendous honor to serve the people of Minnesota, but you also have to raise your family,” he said.

Establishing an independent body, Jacobs said, would allow the state to recruit a more diverse range of people to the Legislature.

Still, Thissen said there were lawmakers who voted against the measure because they either didn’t want lawmaker pay to increase, or they thought the power to set salaries is a function only the Legislature should have.

Hann, like other officials, said he doesn’t think it’s wise to let an unelected body decide how to spend public money.

But Thissen said other states have an independent body deciding legislative salaries, and the public perception has been more positive toward wage increases.

States with these councils typically see an increase in legislator pay, Hann said, which makes it likely legislative salaries will increase in Minnesota if the amendment passes.

“If you favor an increase in legislative pay, then you should probably vote for the amendment,” he said.