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Several factors turn setting salaries for Minn. lawmakers into complex, difficult decision

Minnesota legislative pay council members James Joy (left) and David Metzen look over paperwork at a recent meeting while Chairman Tom Stinson speaks to Legislative Coordinating Commission staff member Greg Hubinger. Briana Bierschbach / MinnPost.com1 / 2
Deborah Olson participates in a recent Minnesota legislative pay council meeting. Briana Bierschbach / MinnPost.com2 / 2

ST. PAUL—It was a simple idea: Take away Minnesota legislators' ability to set their own salaries.

Voters in Minnesota apparently thought it was a no-brainer. On Nov. 6, 77 percent of people who cast their ballots said they supported a constitutional amendment to create an independent, citizen council to tackle the question of what state lawmakers should be paid.

It has not been simple.

The 16 citizen members of the Legislative Salary Council started meeting in January, and they quickly realized they had far more to consider than just the baseline salary that most state legislators make for the part-time job each year, which is $31,140.

There's the per diem money legislators collect: $66 per day for House members and $86 for state senators while they are in session. There's the money legislators get for additional lodging expenses if they travel long distances to serve at the Capitol: up to $1,500 per month all year long. And then there's lawmakers' mileage reimbursements, which each member can collect for traveling to and from the Capitol and around their districts.

Legally, none of those extraneous issues can be tackled by the salary council. But in considering legislative salaries, they're taking it all in. The council is facing a March 31 deadline to set legislator salaries for the next two years.

"We have to get down to business here," said Gloria Myre, an attorney and member of the council from the 2nd Congressional District.

The complexity of the issue was apparent at the council's most recent meeting, when a string of former legislators testified about their struggles serving in the Legislature while trying to hold down another job. Members of the salary council are banned from talking to current legislators during their deliberations.

Some suggested a figure as high as $65,000 a year, similar to what many county commissioners make in Minnesota, while others suggested raising it to the average household income in Minnesota, about $58,000 per year.

Roger Moe, a former Senate majority leader, said when he first was elected in 1970 legislators were paid $4,800 a year.

The salary was increased periodically over the years, but the last time legislators voted for a pay increase was in 1999. Since then, legislators have stayed away from changing their own salary, usually out of fear that they will face political blowback in subsequent elections.

Moe suggested legislators make a salary in the neighborhood of $50,000 to avoid something he said has become more common: legislators leaving in the middle of their term because their family can't afford the $31,000 a year salary.

But former Republican Sen. David Hann, who is running for chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, said legislative salaries should remain where they are. He acknowledged that the job is more than part-time, but most people don't serve because of the money.

Former Democratic Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher said the ideal scenario would be to eliminate the per diem, while adding some way to reimburse greater Minnesota lawmakers who travel far, while raising the base salary for legislators.

Anderson Kelliher said that many people probably voted for the constitutional amendment because they thought legislators were giving themselves pay raises and they wanted to put a stop to that. That's not actually the case, and in fact, the most likely way for them to get a boost in pay is through this new independent council.

That doesn't diminish the importance of the task in front of the council, she said. Their decision will shape who chooses to serve in St. Paul, at a time when government budgets and agencies are growing and becoming more complicated every day.

"This work has become more complex," Anderson Kelliher said. "The size of the state budget has grown; the number of state programs has grown; the number of agencies has grown. The Legislature is the check on the executive branch."

Bierschbach reports for MinnPost.com, a Twin Cities-based online news source.

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