ECM Editorial: Vote ‘yes’ on legislative salary amendment

Former Sen. Branden Petersen, a 30-year-old Republican from Andover, and Sen. Katie Sieben, a 39-year-old DFLer from Newport,  are two of the 17 members of the Minnesota Legislature who won’t be on the ballot in November.

Peterson, who resigned mid-term, and Sieben, an assistant majority leader with 14 years of experience, would be in the primes of their political careers if constituents returned the respected lawmakers to office. But both say it’s time to focus on career and family, and both say their legislative paycheck is part of the problem.

Afraid of being smeared as greedy by election opponents, legislators haven’t voted themselves a pay raise since a 5 percent bump in 1999. The salary of Minnesota’s senators and House members remains stuck at $31,140 a year.

It could be unstuck if voters approve a little-known constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot. It would create an independent citizen board to set legislators’ salaries and remove legislators’ constitutional power to set their own pay.

In the interest of making legislative service more economically viable and sustainable for a broad range of Minnesotans, we support a “yes” vote on the amendment. (Remember, leaving the ballot unmarked amounts to a “no” vote on constitutional amendments.)

“Everybody expects in every job they’re in, whether you’re taking out the trash somewhere, working at a gas station or working at the Capitol, that we’re paid fairly,” said Jason Metsa, a 36-year-old representative from Virginia and the House sponsor of the 2014 legislation that put the amendment on this year’s ballot.

The amendment hasn’t gained much notice yet. Nor have the efforts of the Minnesota Compensation Council, an appointed body that makes pay recommendations for each branch of state government and has argued for years that the complex, demanding job of lawmaking merits a commensurate raise in pay.

Minnesota’s part-time “citizen” legislators are in session three to five months a year, often under grueling and erratic schedules. Constituent demands are year-round, and campaigning — especially in closely contested districts — is part of the work load.

Fitting legislative service around one’s “civilian” career, whether that’s a primary or second job, is often difficult or impossible. So is making it on a legislator’s $31,140 salary, especially for people raising families and still paying college debt.

Tom Swain, a Compensation Council member from 1987 to 2009, says the age mix of legislators has gradually changed, with larger cohorts today of very young upstarts and older, late-career lawmakers. He said public employees with contracts that guarantee them time off to serve have broadened their footprint in the Legislature.

The average age of House members has risen from 50.9 in 2009 to 54.1 this year. The average age of a senator is 59.

Without movement in salary, “we face the prospect of a Legislature that is not representative of Minnesota’s citizenry,” the council warned in a March 2013 report to House and Senate leaders.

Minnesota’s legislative salary ranks 17th among the 39 states that pay their lawmakers. The council (whose authority to recommend legislative salaries was removed by lawmakers in 2014) recommended in 2013 that legislators raise their pay to one-third of the governor’s salary, which today would total $42,380.

What could citizens expect for their money? Possibly a more “professional” Legislature. Research by political science professors Peverill Squire, of the University of Missouri, and Gary Moncrief, of Boise State University, suggests that salary is a component of professionalism, along with the number of days spent in session and the size of a legislature’s staff. More professional legislatures pass more bills, have more contact with constituents, are more independent from their party leaders and the governor, and are more likely to tackle complex policies and government reforms, the researchers found.

The amendment would create a 16-member commission to set legislative salaries every two years, with eight members appointed by the governor and eight by the state Supreme Court’s chief justice. Appointees would be divided evenly between the two parties. Legislators past and present, their spouses, lobbyists, judges and state employees would be barred from serving. The commission could raise legislative pay, leave it the same or even reduce it.

A weakness of the amendment, which doesn’t  stop us from supporting  it, is that it grants the commission no control over per diems of $77 for House members and $96 for senators. Those daily expense allowances are vulnerable to abuse.

Arguably, legislators should be brave and responsible enough to use their constitutional power to set a reasonable, professional salary without dragging politics into it. Equally arguable is that citizens are empowered to  fix their constitution when circumstances show  it needs fixing. That time has come.

— An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board. Reactions to this editorial — and to any commentary on these pages – are always welcome. Send to: [email protected].