Minnesota citizens convene to start deciding lawmaker pay

Published 9:18 am Thursday, January 12, 2017

ST. PAUL — A group of 16 Minnesota residents gathered at the state’s Capitol complex Wednesday for the first time to discuss how much they believe lawmakers should be paid.

The nine men and seven women were picked as a result of voters deciding in November that a council, rather than lawmakers, should set lawmakers’ salaries. Though the meeting was largely introductory, council members, who hail from all over the state, talked at length about data practices requirements, salary and benefit breakdowns compared with other legislatures and communicating with lawmakers, which is banned until the council submits the salaries.

Here’s a look at what the council faces:

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How does Minnesota compare?

Currently, Minnesota legislators make about $31,000 for what the state considers a part-time job, though there are other benefits such as per diem and a pension. Lawmaker pay has gone unchanged since 1999.

The idea of citizens having unilateral control over lawmaker pay is relatively rare in the country. Only California and Washington have similar systems in place, though many other states do have some type of citizen involvement. Since the induction of their councils on lawmaker pay, Washington has never lowered salaries, though it has remained frozen for multiple years at a time. California, where members of the Legislature make over $104,000, has only reduced salary twice.

Talking points

Members of the council were repeatedly confronted with murky legal situations as they attempted to find their footing and understand the implications of the new law. Several portions of the constitutional amendment that created the council have no legal precedence, which made it hard for state attorneys to definitively answer many of the council’s questions.

The complete ban of communication with legislators worried some, as they wondered whether a simple “hello” was enough to break the rules. Joseph Boyle, a council member from the Eighth District, used a conversation with a lawmaker in a hotel hot tub as an example — and a moment of comic relief — to illustrate chance interactions that could occur with lawmakers. Council member David Metzen, a former University of Minnesota Board of Regents member, proposed a motion that eventually passed saying that members will report any significant interaction with lawmakers to the council chair and vice-chair.

Sherrie Pugh, a council member from Minnesota’s Third District, said she was worried that some Minnesota citizens might be priced out of the job because of the large time requirement and relatively low pay. Members of the Legislature make just over 60 percent of the household median income in the state, which is about $59,000. In the past, lawmakers have raised concerns similar to Pugh’s, saying that, in reality, the job requires a full-time level of commitment, which isn’t feasible for many.

“I think the salary is an obstacle, often, to women, especially if you are a female head of household,” Pugh said.

For future meetings

Tom Stinson, who was voted to be the chair of the council at the beginning of the meeting, said the bulk of the work on deciding what to pay lawmakers is still ahead of the group. But with another meeting already set for later this month, he said he believes the group is off to a good start. Council members said more information about lawmakers’ benefits, such as their per diem and pension plans, was needed to properly assess how much to pay legislators.

The council asked state staffers to compile information about the other jobs that legislators have and how salary and benefits are taxed. They requested that they receive copies of lawmakers’ compensation paperwork to better understand the full scope of how the Legislature handles pay.

A final report with salary amount is due to the Legislature by March 31. Salary changes will go into effect on July 1.