Editorial: Obstructing legislator pay raise subverts will of voters

Minnesotans who voted in November to empower an independent commission to set state legislators’ salaries may have been surprised to learn that the raw politics they’d hoped to transcend never went away.

Last month, when the newly appointed Legislative Salary Council approved a 45 percent salary increase for the state’s 201 legislators, the leader of the Minnesota House pounced.

In a March 16 letter, Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, instructed the House controller not to fund the pay increases, scheduled by law to take effect July 1.

Depending on his appetite for brinkmanship over the issue, Daudt risks plunging Minnesota into a state constitutional crisis. He has already, in our opinion, subverted the will of the voters.

In a landslide, 76 percent of them voted in November for a constitutional amendment creating the Legislative Salary Council, whose statutory duty is to “prescribe” legislative salaries by March 31 of odd-numbered years. The amendment struck from the Minnesota Constitution legislators’ power to set their own salaries.

A 45 percent increase in base salary, from $31,140 to $45,000, is a whopper, all right — eye-catching bait for political exploitation. But $45,000 is nearly where salaries would stand today if lawmakers had granted themselves cost-of-living increases since 1999, the last time they raised their pay.

Instead, legislators have been paranoid to touch their salaries lest election opponents label them greedy. Paltry pay for what is a very substantial job commitment has narrowed the field of qualified candidates, which favors retirees, people with otherwise significant financial means and public union employees guaranteed by law the time to serve.

Daudt argues that the pay increase, which would cost $2.8 million annually for House members and senators, is inappropriate because other Minnesotans aren’t so fortunate in their jobs.

But Minnesota’s median household income has risen by 46 percent since 1999, the council says, and if legislators’ salaries had matched that performance, they would stand at $45,500. The council approved the 45 percent raise on a 13-1 vote which followed several pay raise recommendations over the years from an advisory commission on state government compensation.

“The council understands that we are setting the salary not just for those presently serving in the Legislature, but also for those who may desire to serve in the future,” said the bipartisan group, half of whose 16 members were appointed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and half by Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. “Unless Minnesota’s Legislature has a competitive salary level, we will not be able to attract and retain legislators with the best skills and experience to represent us.”

The pay council also took the useful step of recommending that the House and Senate terminate the expense claims known as per diems and reimburse legislators only for daily living expenses such as meals and travel costs. We support that recommendation.

Per diems are capped at $66 per day in the House and $86 in the Senate. Per diems average $5,100 to $7,900 for House members and $7,600 to $12,100 for Senate members, according to the council. But some even higher claims point to, if not abuse, wildly different interpretations of legitimate expense claims.

In 2015, the largest per diem payment was $13,398 in the House and $16,426 in the Senate, the council reports. (Per diems are lower overall in even-numbered years, which have shorter legislative sessions.) Per diems are paid on top of reimbursement for travel costs, and for lodging expenses available to lawmakers living more than 50 miles from the Capitol. Under federal tax law, those legislators are allowed to deduct per diem payments from their incomes.

The pay council has no power over per diems under the constitutional amendment. In fact, its power over legislative salaries may well have to be clarified in court.

Daudt and others who oppose the raise in the House point to Article 11, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution, which solely empowers the Legislature to appropriate funds — for legislative salary increases or anything else. But the constitution also, in Article 1, Section 11, prohibits “any law impairing the obligation of contracts.”

To his credit, Daudt’s counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, hasn’t chosen to obstruct. He views the Legislative Salary Council’s action as constitutionally binding.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board 

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