High legislator turnover rate not an irregularity

More than twelve legislators said they won’t be seeking re-election next term.

by Kevin Beckman

More than a dozen Minnesota legislators have announced that they won’t be seeking re-election after their current terms in office, taking with them decades of combined experience.
The leaders leaving don’t include the three members of the House of Representatives who resigned mid-term; Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crater Lake, who died in August; or the four representatives who announced they will be running for a seat in the state Senate after their current terms in the House are up.
While these numbers might seem high, David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University, said they’re not unusual. 
“I would say the numbers right now are somewhat about average or perhaps slightly above average,” he said. “In the last two decades there have been election cycles where there have been far more legislators opting to retire.” 
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the turnover rate for Minnesota legislators is typically high. 
“There’s not many left at the Legislature from when I was first elected,” Bakk said. 
In 2012, the House had 31 retirements and the Senate had 17, said the House’s director of public affairs Susan Closmore. She added that 15 lawmakers retired from the House in 2014. 
“Legislators get paid poorly given time and responsibilities and see much less of their families than they or their families want,” said University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs professor Larry Jacobs.
In addition to the time commitment, some legislators have pointed out the difficulty of balancing the part-time job of being a legislator with other professional pursuits. 
Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, will leave the Legislature to move to North Carolina for his job. He said it’s difficult to work for a private-sector employer while being absent for significant chunk of the year.
“You can imagine if you told your employer, ‘I’d love to work for you, but, oh, by the way, I’m going to disappear for about four months out of the year.’ … Your value is significantly diminished,” he said. 
Lawmakers who plan to step down range from three-term Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, to veteran lawmaker Sen. James Metzen, DFL-St. Paul, who was first elected to the House in 1974. Metzen, a six-term representative and nine-term senator, announced last year that he started receiving treatment for cancer and that he intended to retire. 
Metzen’s experience is only a fraction of the expertise leaving the capitol, with multiple departing legislators having served for a decade or more.
Schultz said that this is often problematic because it shifts the knowledge and political expertise from lawmakers to legislative staff and lobbyists who tend to stick around the capitol for longer periods of time.
He said those knowledge gaps are often difficult to fill with new legislators who have never done the job before.
“When you start to get rid of people who have experience, it really creates problems in terms of governing,” Schultz said.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said the high turnover rate for Minnesota lawmakers is potentially harmful to constituents as well. 
“When you get elected, I think you sign up for the long term,” said Kahn, who has served in the Legislature for over 40 years. 
Schultz said a possible remedy would be to stagger terms for legislators, particularly in the Senate, so every seat isn’t up for election on the same year. 
“We could shift some of the functions to allow them some kind of learning curve,” he said.
Still, Thompson said that although institutional knowledge is important, fresh voices at the capitol are beneficial.
“I think that when you’re around that place too long, there’s a tendency to lose touch with how this stuff affects the real world,” Thompson said.