Per diemproblem

Minnesota lawmakers need to reform the way they get paid.

Last year’s state legislative session began with a controversy about the salaries of our state lawmakers. Within the first week of session, our legislators voted to increase their daily allowance, or per diem, from $66 to $96 for senators and from $66 to $77 for House members. Now the legality of that change is being challenged by a group that says it was a salary increase that goes against the state’s Constitution. Regardless of whether the pay increase is deemed legal or not, last year’s per diem raise was ill-timed, unpopular and seemed sneaky. It all underlines how desperately our current compensation system needs to change.

The salary for Minnesota legislators is just over $31,000, where it has stayed since 1999. With per diem payments during the legislative session and for days worked outside of session, lawmakers can make more than $10,000 in addition to their base salary. While per diem has traditionally existed to cover daily expenses, it has now morphed into a significant chunk of legislative salaries.

Our state legislators need to reform their payment system. While the per diem move by legislators last year makes a traditional salary increase politically infeasible this year, going nine years between pay raises is too much. We need to make this a job which is accessible to all Minnesotans, not just the wealthy, and that means paying legislators a reasonable salary. Although the legislature only meets for about five months per year, more and more senators and representatives are spending the full year dealing with constituents and working on new bills. The base salary should be increased and automatically tied to inflation rates to keep pay rates current without forcing legislators to awkwardly deal with raising their own salaries every few years.

Per diem can also be an important part of the pay equation because it allows lawmakers who continue to work year-round on legislation to be compensated for their time. Our legislators deserve to be fairly compensated; however, it seems that the current system is weighted too heavily toward per diem payments. With some slight adjustments, the current system could be fair and not leave voters feeling like they have been duped.