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Fritz Knaak remembers tripling his billings at his law firm in 1992, the year the Republican state senator from White Bear Lake decided to retire from politics.

Legislator pay issues fester – quietly

DFL Sen. Kent Eken plans to revive a bill this session to establish an outside commission that would have the authority to raise or slash legislator pay.

Morrow, Gottwalt resignations highlight problem; is establishing a pay commission the answer?

Fritz Knaak remembers tripling his billings at his law firm in 1992, the year the Republican state senator from White Bear Lake decided to retire from politics.

Before that, Knaak’s partners at his firm were more than happy to take the extra clients he had to turn down during the decade he served in the state Senate. But Knaak got married during his first five years in the chamber, and eventually the $27,000 yearly salary for lawmakers plus the time commitment required for the job just didn’t add up. “If you do the job right, it takes a huge amount of time and there has to be some consideration for that,” Knaak said. “I had two full-time jobs, and only one that paid me well. It’s very time consuming, and people don’t realize the stresses it causes to a marriage and your family.”

Legislator pay in Minnesota is a perennial problem. All elected members of the Legislature are paid a $31,140 yearly salary with a special $12,456 annual bonus for those in leadership positions. That number hasn’t gone up since 1999, and daily per diem payments of $96 a day for senators and $77 for House members have only changed a handful of times since then. Even lawmakers’ assistants have a higher salary than they do, starting at $32,368 a year.

While the job of a state legislator in Minnesota is technically classified as part-time, most say the time commitment required during the four to five months they are in session makes it difficult to find another job that’s sufficiently flexible, especially for lawmakers from the far-flung regions of the state. The starting salary has proven especially challenging for recruiting and keeping young legislators from diverse backgrounds in St. Paul, many of whom have new families and are in their prime income-earning years.

The issue was highlighted at the outset of this year’s session, when two House members — DFLer Terry Morrow and Republican Steve Gottwalt — tendered their resignations to take better-paying jobs, despite having just easily won re-election to their respective seats.

“If you don’t pay a livable wage, it really can have an impact on who can serve in the Legislature and whether the Legislature as a whole demographically represents the constituents they serve,” said Morgan Cullen, a policy analyst with the National Council of State Legislature (NCSL). “In states that have really lows salaries, you see a larger number of retirees or independently wealthy people who can be public servants.”

The problem lies in a clause in the state’s constitution, which requires lawmakers to set pay for a wide range of public officials, including themselves. The situation is the same in many legislatures across the nation, and lawmakers are all too aware of the potential political consequences of supporting an increase in their own paychecks. More than a dozen states have not raised legislative salaries in at least 10 years, according to data compiled by NCSL. A move to do so can be politically ruinous. In a primary election in Pennsylvania in 2006, 17 incumbent lawmakers were ousted after voting to increase their pay by 16 percent.

Solutions are hard to come by when lawmakers are reluctant, but some states have explored alternatives to legislators setting their own pay. That includes raising the salary for future legislators and doing away with per diems to creating an independent commission that has the authority to set wages. DFL Sen. Kent Eken plans to revive a bill this session to establish an outside commission that would have the authority to raise or slash legislator pay. The bill would have to face voter approval in the next election cycle.

“If anyone’s going to [fix the problem], it would be Democrats, and something needs to happen,” Knaak said. “Having done it, I totally understand the time sacrifice. You are working two full-time jobs and then something just gives.”

Pay stagnant for more than a decade

One of the first references to legislators’ income, according to the Minnesota Historical Society, was documented by a Swedish visitor in the early 1870s, which said the “senators and representatives are paid five dollars a day, and they receive free travel back and forth and about twenty dollars for stationery.”

By 1909, legislators in Minnesota were making $500 a year. It took until 1945 for that to bump up to $1,000 annually, but after that the figure steadily increased over the years. The last raise came in 1999, when legislators gave themselves a 5 percent pay increase to bump their salaries from $29,657 a year to the current level of about $31,000 a year.

In 2007, the maximum daily allowances for meals and incidental costs for state senators was raised from $66 to $96, while the House increased its per diem payments to $77 a day. (The last time they had been changed in the Senate was 2001; it had been two years since the House changed its rate.) To get the allowance increases passed, Republican legislators sponsored the bill in both chambers and left it to Democrats to make sure they got enough votes.

But leadership at the time wanted to see more done to address the pay problem. Democratic House Majority Leader Tony Sertich and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller suggested a pay raise for legislators to make the job more attractive to people with diverse backgrounds.

House Democrats Larry Hosch and Eken took that idea and spun it into a proposal that would establish a commission set up by the governor’s office and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court to determine pay for elected officials. The proposal, which would need voter approval in the next election, passed off the House floor on the last night of session with bipartisan support, but time ran out in the state Senate.

Attracting and keeping people in St. Paul

Hosch won’t be able to carry the bill again: He ultimately retired from his St. Cloud-area House seat last spring, citing a young family and time constraints. “I came into the position unmarried, and then I got married and had kids, and then there were the constraints the job had on me for pursuing career opportunities. I’m gone half the year, so who would hire me?” Hosch said.

The situation can be the most difficult for outstate legislators like Hosch, who live in St. Paul during session and only return home on the weekends. “For us rural Minnesota legislators, this is more than a full time commitment — it’s your life for part of the year,” recently retired GOP Sen. Doug Magnus said, adding that House members are also on the campaign trail every other year. “You can’t pay part-time wages for a full-time job.”

Others note it can even be hard for metro-area lawmakers, pointing to the retirement of Democrat Sen. Mee Moua of St. Paul, a rising star in the DFL Party and the first ever Hmong-American elected to a Legislature in the nation. But after the death of her mother-in-law, Moua and her husband began to feel just how difficult it would be to manage both her family and her job as a legislator. She retired in the spring of 2010, and later that year it was reported that her home had gone into foreclosure.

“It needs to be increased because if you don’t do this, you get into a situation where you have only certain professions that could go in the Legislature,” Magnus said, adding that the careers of Minnesota lawmakers are heavily tilted toward two categories — teachers and attorneys. “If you don’t raise the salary, all you have are folks who can afford to do this or can work it out with their job. You don’t want to do that; you want to have a Legislature that is representative of the state.”

Tackling the problem

Minnesota is middle of the pack in the nation as far as legislator salaries go, and every state seems to have a different way of administering pay.

Neighboring legislators in Wisconsin earn $49,943 per year with $88 in maximum per diem daily. In North Dakota, legislators get $152 a day while in session and for any interim committee meetings. Illinois legislators make nearly $68,000 a year with $111 in per diem daily. The highest paid state legislature is in California, where legislators make more than $95,000 a year. Legislative salaries in New Hampshire, as written in the constitution, have been $200 per term since 1889.

Some states have found a solution to the problem of flat-lined incomes for lawmakers. In states like Florida and Massachusetts, legislators get automatic pay increases tied to things like the increased cost of living, the median household income for the state, or the wages of other state employees. Other states have independent commissions similar to the one Eken is proposing. While Minnesota does currently have an independent body set up to make income recommendations to the Legislature, it has no authority to change anything.

In California, legislators faced a pay cut of about $21,000 under the California’s Citizens Compensation Commission, while Alaska’s Officers Compensation Commission recommended a $26,000 increase for lawmakers, raising salaries there in 2009 for the first time in 15 years. Alaska lawmakers now make more than $50,000 a year.

But Eken says his bill is not about giving legislators a pay increase — it’s about taking the responsibility of setting pay out of their hands to avoid a possible conflict of interest. Once again, the bill would have to travel as a constitutional amendment, so he’s not sure how much support it will attract this session after an election year marked by two controversial and expensive constitutional amendment campaigns. But he’s hopeful it will catch on sometime in the next two years.

“A lot of people feel legislators should not be determining their own pay,” Eken said. “Nobody goes into this for the money, they do this for public service, and that’s the same reason we shouldn’t be sitting here arguing about what our pay should be. We need to be spending our time talking about real policy that affects the rest of the state.”

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