Here's the Minnesota referendum you haven't heard about

DFL Rep. Kim Norton of Rochester is retiring.
Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester is retiring from the Legislature partly because of financial hardship. She's pushing changes in how lawmaker salaries are set.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Minnesotans this fall will be asked to vote on whether to remove state lawmakers' authority to set their own salaries and transfer the power instead to an independent citizen board.

If passed, it would be a dramatic change in how lawmaker pay is set. So how come no one's talking about it? So far, no organized campaign has emerged on either side.

At least one critic believes the proposal's wording — "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?" — could lead voters to unintentionally deliver a pay raise to lawmakers.

Lawmakers drafted the language a few years ago after the latest recommendations to boost their pay went nowhere. Legislator pay has been such a sticky subject that there hasn't been a change to the base salary of $31,140 since 1999.

"Legislators do not want to be voting on our pay. It feels wrong," said state Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, one of the amendment's chief supporters. "If you look at the constitutional amendment, it makes no comments whatsoever on what the pay should be. It's all about who should set it. And we are not the objective ones, so we should not be the ones setting it."

Eken acknowledges that taking the decision-making out of lawmakers' hands could make it easier for them to get a raise.

"Could it lead to a pay increase?" he asked. "It's possible."

If the amendment passes, a 16-member salary council would be formed to decide legislator pay every two years. The governor and Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice would pick the members. Appointees would be split evenly between the two major parties. Legislators past and present and their spouses would be excluded, as would lobbyists, judges and state employees.

Other states have similar setups. A notable example is California, which established its Citizen Compensation Commission following a 1990 referendum. In its first three years, the panel left lawmaker pay unchanged.

More often than not since, there have been compensation increases. But there have been pay cuts when the state was in fiscal straits. Legislators there earn $100,000 a year, tops in the nation.

Rank-and-file Minnesota legislators rank 19th in base pay among the 39 states that provide an annual salary, according to a survey this year by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Financial hardship is one reason five-term Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, is giving up her seat in the Legislature.

When Norton first ran, she figured she'd scale back to part-time at her nonprofit job and it would all work out. But she left the job after her first session because she found it impossible to do both well.

Norton got another outside job but resigned that post after yet another late-evening floor session caused her to miss a critical event. More recently she says she had a tough time qualifying for better home mortgage terms because of her income and the lender's impression that her job was only temporary.

"You don't run for legislator to make money. That should never be and certainly in our state isn't one of the reasons people would ever run for office," she said. "But you shouldn't be hurt financially when you are trying to serve your community as well."

Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, opposed the bill that put the question on the fall ballot. He considers the wording to be deceptive.

"I think the concern is that voters will see it as a way to say 'no' to pay raises or what they might perceive as pay raises for legislators," he said. "But if they vote for the amendment, they will actually be voting to put this in a third-party's hands, making it probably easier for pay raises to go through."

Bob Schroeder served on the Minnesota compensation council, an advisory group, when it recommended in 2013 that legislator pay be calculated based on the governor's paycheck, which would have paid lawmakers one-third of the chief executive's salary, or nearly $43,000 currently. Schroeder sensed then it would be a tough sell politically, and it was.

Constitutional amendments have a strong track record, particularly in the last four decades when 70 percent have prevailed. But Schroeder, a former chief of staff to a Republican governor, said he isn't sure if the fall ballot question is the right course.

"Legislating comes with a double-edged sword. It's hard, time consuming work. But the compensation may not competitively match the effort involved," he said. "Every candidate should know that when they decide to run for office. It's called public service, not self-service."