Election Brings Change to How Minnesota Lawmakers Are Paid

Like most state legislators in America, Minnesota's were in charge of their own pay -- and yet, they haven't had a raise in 20 years.
by | November 9, 2016
The Minnesota state Capitol (FlickrCC/Fibonacci Blue)

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.

Minnesota legislators haven't had a raise in nearly 20 years, but they might get one soon. That's because voters overwhelmingly approved a new method for determining their pay.

Right now, lawmakers set their own salaries. But on Tuesday, voters gave that decision to an independent commission. And, ironically, that will make it more likely for legislators to get a raise.

According to a 2014 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), lawmakers only got a raise that year in states where someone else was in charge of how much money they make.

It's politically risky for politicians to hike their own pay. Case in point: The late-night pay increase Pennsylvania legislators approved for themselves in 2005 triggered huge blowback from the public and led to the defeat of more than 20 legislators the following year.

Nationwide, the amount of money that state lawmakers earn ranges roughly from a meager $20,000 to a much more comfortable $80,000, according to NCSL. In Minnesota, legislative salaries have remained unchanged at $31,140, plus per diems, since 1997. 

Given the demands on legislators, that's too low, said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.

In recent years, the legislature has lost members -- including leaders -- who have left to pursue more lucrative work in the private sector, or even in local government.

"The concern now is that we have so many legislators who are serving a few terms and leaving," said Jacobs. "There's bipartisan concern and civic concern that Minnesota's good governance is threatened by pretty low pay for what is now pretty much a year-long job."

Serving in Minnesota's legislature isn't technically considered a full-time job. According to NCSL, only 10 states have full-time legislatures that meet year-round. But being a legislator means someone is always asking for a few minutes of your time, regardless of whether your chamber is in session.

Sixteen states have some type of compensation commission or board. The constitutional amendment on the Minnesota ballot, which was referred by the legislature, will put 16 people in charge of legislators' pay -- half appointed by the governor and half by the chief justice of the state supreme court. The group's makeup will be bipartisan, with members split down the middle by party.

"The citizens panel would apply a fair market principle to legislators' pay," said Minnesota political consultant Shannon Watson, who didn't work on the referendum campaign. "The commission would not include legislators or lobbyists. The list of people who are disqualified from serving is huge."

There was some concern among voters that creating the commission will lead to higher legislative pay at the expense of taxpayers. Nonetheless, there wasn't organized opposition against the measure.

It was the only measure on Minnesota's ballot this year.

Watson points out that there's a clear conflict of interest involved in having legislators determine their own salaries. If they don't have a role, they might get a raise, but at least it wouldn't be one they provided for themselves.

Matt Little, a Democratic state Senate candidate, agreed.

"I think it makes a lot of sense to move it from legislators' control and discussion," he said. "To me, legislators are accountable either way. To make it less of a political football is a good idea."

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.