Minnesota voters will decide legislative pay issue this year
ST. PAUL — Christine Leitner of St. Paul showed up on the very first day the Ramsey County elections office opened for voting to cast her ballot since she'll be vacationing out-of-state on Election Day.
"I wanted to get it done as soon as possible so I didn't forget," she said.
Despite that civic-mindedness, she hadn't known there would be a constitutional amendment question — changing who decides legislators' pay — on the ballot.
Leitner is not alone.
Unlike the constitutional amendments of 2012, there has been no organized campaign for or against the measure. Outside groups — those that spend millions to influence who wins the Minnesota House and Senate in November — have barely mentioned it.
"They are not touching on it at all," said Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley. Eken is facing a tough race for re-election and was the key sponsor of the constitutional amendment. "My opponent brought it up once and once only. ... We're the ones who are bringing up the constitutional amendment."
What it would do
The amendment, if it passes, would require the state to set up an outside council not controlled by the Legislature to decide how much lawmakers should be paid.
The state constitution currently says that "compensation of senators and representatives shall be prescribed by law" and that lawmakers can only decide to increase pay for lawmakers for the next class of lawmakers. That is, if the Legislature passes and the governor signs a pay increase for House and Senate members, it would take effect only after a House election, which happens every two years.
In the face of public pressure not to raise their own salaries, the base rate for legislative pay has stayed the same since 1999. The current pay for lawmakers is $31,500 a year plus per diem expense payments, which can add $10,000 per year.
Proponents of changing the system argue low pay turns potential candidates away from running and forces incumbents to quit.
How it would work
If voters approve this year's ballot question, the outside council, with members picked by the governor and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, would decide how much lawmakers should be paid every odd-numbered year.
By law, the members of the council would need to equally represent Republicans and Democrats. None of the members could be current or former lawmakers, state elected officials, lobbyists or current state or judicial employees.
"I think having salaries determined by someone other than legislators is a healthy thing," said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.
In three states that have councils making legislator pay determinations, lawmakers make more than those in Minnesota. In one, they make less. In California, where full-time lawmakers make far more than the part-timers in Minnesota, a council reduced legislative pay in recent years.
'Backdoor' to more money
Critics of the amendment say the amendment cedes power to a council and would give lawmakers a pay bump without making lawmakers take responsibility for the decision.
"It was an egregious attempt to use a backdoor on their own pay," said John Rouleau, executive director of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition. The Jobs Coalition works to get Republicans elected to state offices.
After all, when the DFL-controlled Legislature approved the amendment in 2013, the Senate had narrowly approved a measure to increase legislative pay from $31,500 a year to $42,000 a year.
That move would not have won approval in the House, which, unlike the Senate, faced re-election in 2014.
"It was clear to me that I couldn't get the votes," said former House Speaker and current Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. Like a bipartisan majority in the Senate, he supported the amendment in the House three years ago, along with a majority of Democrats.
That vote, in the waning hours of the session three years ago, put the amendment on the ballot this year.
Eken, who sponsored the move, said that while many voters may not have studied the issue before they see the ballot question, he feels sure it will pass.
"I think it's very common sense," he said.
Leitner, the St. Paul voter, agreed when she saw it on her ballot.
"I was happy to see it on there. It will be a good change, I think," she said.
At a glance
The language on the ballot
Under the title "Remove Lawmakers' Power to Set Their Own Pay" voters will be asked:
"Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to remove state lawmakers' power to set their own salaries, and instead establish an independent, citizens-only council to prescribe salaries of lawmakers?"
Voters can answer "yes" or "no."
What it will take to pass
A majority of those voting in the election need to vote "yes" on the constitutional amendment for it to pass. Those skipping the constitutional amendment are be counted as "no" votes.