Who should decide state legislators' pay?

BTN11: Who should decide how much state lawmakers get paid?

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota voters will get a chance in November to change the way state legislators' pay is set. 

A ballot question asks whether the constitution should be amended to remove lawmakers' power to set their own salaries, and turn that duty instead over to a bipartisan appointed board.

The salary ballot question is off the radar for a lot of people because it was authorized by the legislature in 2013, and no "vote yes" or "vote no" campaigns have sprung up in an effort to influence your decision.

The annual salary is currently $31,140, for a position that is considered part-time.  It's a full-time job for five to six months each year, and lawmakers spend time between sessions meeting with constituents, going on tours of government buildings and attending interim committee hearings.

Legislators can collect an extra money by claiming a daily per diem for incidental expenses such as food, cell phone bills and local travel. Those per diem payments ranges from $5,000-$9,000 a year depending on how much a particular legislator applies for and claims.

The text on the ballot reads as follows: "Shall the Minnesota constitution be amended to remove lawmakers' power to set their own salaries, and instead set up an independent, citizens-only council, to prescribe salaries of lawmakers? Yes or No?"

In Minnesota, not voting on a ballot question counts as a "No" vote. So in order to pass, the amendment must gain more than 50 percent of all votes cast in the general election.

"It might very well be a conflict of interest for legislators to set their own pay," said Hamline University professor and KARE 11 political analyst David Schultz. "I don't know about you. I don't know too many people who have the ability to set their own pay. On the other hand some argue legislators should set their pay and have stand up to election with voters to be accountable for what they're doing."

The amendment would create a 16-member panel -- split evenly between Republicans and Democrats -- appointed by the governor and the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The panel would review and set salaries once every two years.

Current and past lawmakers and their spouses, as well as lobbyists, judges and state employees would be barred from serving on the panel.

"The way the legislature's set up there's not too many people from working class or poor backgrounds that can get a job that you can basically take off for six months a year, and drop things at a second's notice, to go attend a committee hearing, or make enough money at $31,000 a year to support yourself as a family," Shultz remarked.

But there's still resistance in this Minnesota, and a lot of other places, to having a full-time legislature. The framers of the Minnesota Constitution wanted the legislature to be citizen lawmakers who are considered part-timers.

"The citizen-farmer model was part of the thinking when the state was established in the 1850's," Schultz said.

"While that's noble, you have to sort of wonder to what extent is a constitutional provision or theory that was really developed in the horse-and-buggy era still applicable to the 21st century," Schultz said. "The complexity of government now is no much greater than it was 160 years ago."

The state already has a compensation council that studies lawmaker pay makes non-binding recommendations. In 2013 the panel recommended setting pay at $40,000, which is one-third of what the governor currently earns.

The idea is to remove pay decisions from the political arena, and base the decision on comparisons with comparable states and lawmaking bodies.

But for some, that's the most problematic part of turning the decision over to a bipartisan, appointed board.

"It would set up a compensation board that would not be accountable to the voters," Schultz explained.

"And if the voters don't like the pay hikes this board puts into place they can't vote them out of office. They can't retaliate, which is what often happens now with pay raises lawmakers give themselves."


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