The Minnesota Senate has narrowly passed a bill that would give state representatives and senators a 35 percent pay increase.
Supporters say a raise is overdue and that without better pay well-qualified candidates may not run for the Legislature.
Proposed by the state compensation council, a small group comprised of appointees by the Legislature, the governor and the state Supreme Court, the suggested raise for legislators would cost state taxpayers $2.37 million per year. The compensation council also recommended raised for the governor and judges.
The bill squeaked through the Senate on a 34-32 vote. Its chances for success appear slim in the House, and that might be just fine with many Minnesotans.
"That's abhorrent," said Ruth Ulin, a retiree from Hastings, Minn. "That's way too high."
Ulin, who lives on Social Security in a subsidized apartment, is quick to say she does not think state legislators need big raises.
"They all look like they're doing fairly well," said Ulin, who works as a volunteer at the library in Woodbury's indoor central park. "They are all dressed nicely, they're well groomed, they have jewelry on them. I think they're doing just fine."
It doesn't help state legislators much when Ulin hears that members of the Legislature haven't had a pay raise since 1999. They might deserve a raise of 5 or 10 percent, she said, but not 35 percent.
The proposed 35 percent pay raise was also news to 50-year-old Veronica Mitchell of Woodbury. She could hardly believe it's even under consideration.
"I'm glad I haven't heard about that," she said.
Mitchell, who remembers the state government shutdown a couple of years ago and other partisan battling, doesn't view the Legislature as particularly accomplished.
"It's not the length of how long they haven't had a raise," she said. "It's what you've done."
Members of the Minnesota Legislature receive a base salary of slightly more than $31,000 a year. The vast majority also receive several thousands more each year in per diem payments.
The average 2012 per diem claim for Senate members was nearly $9,000, while House members claimed more than $6,000 on average.
State lawmakers also receive health insurance for themselves and their families and have retirement plans.
Unless the Legislature approves higher pay for state lawmakers, many qualified people might choose not to run for the Legislature, contends the author of the bill, state Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said.
"If we want to have talented and experienced people working for government then we have an obligation," Pappas said. "They have a right to be adequately compensated. I'm not saying generously compensated, but adequately compensated."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states have Legislatures like Minnesota's where members work part-time to full-time hours.
Morgan Cullen, who tracks legislative salaries for the group, said the average salary for members of Legislatures in those states is about $35,300. That's a few thousand more than what Minnesota lawmakers are currently paid, but it's several thousand less than they would earn if the proposed 35 percent pay raise becomes law.
Cullen knows of no effort to increase legislator salaries in other states. But he said more than a dozen other state legislatures have not passed pay raises in more than a decade.
Even in cases where there's a good argument for increasing salaries, he said, it's always politically challenging.
"In most legislatures it's up to lawmakers to decide if they want to raise their own salary," Cullen said. "In a lot of ways it makes it almost impossible to do so because there's always the political repercussions that happens you know it creates a political fire-storm."
That's probably why state legislators in Minnesota haven't voted to increase their wages for so long, Cullen said.
If the legislature approves the raise, it wouldn't take effect until after the next election.
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