Lawmaker pay to jump to $45K per year

Minnesota lawmakers are in for a big raise after a binding vote Friday by the independent panel established through a constitutional amendment last fall.

The Legislative Salary Council voted to boost base legislator pay to $45,000 a year starting in July. That's up from $31,141. It marks their first raise since 1999.

"We actually need to do a catch-up thing here because of the failure to act over a 17 year period," said council member William Donohue.

Until voters moved the pay power to the new council, the Legislature itself had sole authority to set salaries. Political deadlocks over the years left the salaries stagnant, leaving lawmakers to resort to other ways to bump up earnings. That includes daily per diem payments, housing allowances for rural members and technology stipends.

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The vote was 13-1, with the sole dissenter saying the jump is too steep, considering lawmakers will continue to qualify for daily expense allowances. The council didn't have power to raise or lower those.

"They could have given themselves a raise anytime they wanted and they refused to do it," said the dissenter, Kenneth Wilmes. "So obviously it wasn't that important to them, through multiple legislatures."

Wilmes said many lawmakers are retired or hold down other paying jobs in addition to their legislative duties, which are busiest from January to May.

But member Sherrie Pugh said the council has the duty to make the institution more welcoming to those that couldn't afford to serve otherwise.

"We should be thinking we are setting salaries for what we are hoping is going to be new talent and representative members of our society who want to serve their state but need to be compensated in a manner that allows them to be whole," Pugh said.

Gloria Myre, another council member, said the $45,000 is still less than what pay would have been if it had risen along with inflation over the years.

Council chairman Tom Stinson said he thinks lawmakers will be under pressure to revisit per diem -- $86 in the Senate and $66 in the House -- now that their base pay is rising substantially.

"I hope that they take a hard look at the per diem especially in light of the fact they are getting a pretty substantial increase in salary," Stinson said.

The raise will cost the state treasury $2.8 million per year. Lawmakers will still have to take a vote to allocate the money. A bill that creates an open appropriation to do that was scheduled for debate Monday in the House.

Gov. Mark Dayton says the salary level is about what he supports.

Some lawmakers had mixed reactions.

Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, said he didn’t support the creation of the council and opposes its decision. Osmek thinks there will be voter regret.

“You took our legislative pay away from us and you put it with an unaccountable appointed body who decided what we’re going to do. I don’t have to account for this," he said. "As I said when we did this, I’m going to throw my hands up and say you voted for this. And it was mistake.”

Osmek said said he might use his extra pay to make political donations to Republican groups.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL- Minneapolis, said he hopes the new pay will make the Legislature more inviting to candidates who couldn’t afford to serve.

He said lawmakers should avoid another political fight when it comes time to approving the money for it.

“You know, that’s been the problem all along," Dibble said. "People have been demagoguing on this and trying to put people in a bad light and a bad corner. I hope we’re able to just do the responsible thing and move on and not make this a big deal.”