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Senate narrowly passes legislator pay increase

Charley Shaw//April 16, 2013

Senate narrowly passes legislator pay increase

Charley Shaw//April 16, 2013

Tom Bakk (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

A state government omnibus finance bill containing a pay increase for legislators squeaked by the state Senate on Tuesday afternoon. The bill passed 34-32, with five DFLers and all Republicans voting against the bill in a roll-call vote that lasted several minutes.

The bill adopts the recommendation of the legislator-citizen Compensation Council to increase legislators’ pay to 33 percent of the governor’s salary. The annual salary for legislators would increase from $31,140 to $40,890. The governor’s salary would increase from $120,000 to $128,000. It would be the first increase in legislator salary since 1999 and would address concerns that possible candidates won’t run for the Legislature due to personal financial constraints.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said after the session that the pay increase is necessary to prevent the Senate from becoming a place solely for retirees, the wealthy or those who can’t find employment elsewhere.

“This is about the next generation of people who are going to come to the Senate,” Bakk said.

Whatever happens this session, legislators won’t see their pay increase this year or the next. Article IV of the Minnesota Constitution prohibits legislators’ pay increases from taking effect until the next House of Representatives takes office. Any bill this session to increase salary, therefore, won’t put more coin in legislators’ pockets until January 2015.

Nonetheless, legislators are sensitive to giving themselves pay increases because of the perception among constituents that they are using their office to enrich themselves with public dollars. That perception can translate into attack ads from challengers in swing districts during the campaign. The current moment is the most politically safe for the Senate to pursue a pay increase, because they were elected last year to a four-year term and won’t face the voters until November 2016.

The House doesn’t face the same political calendar as the Senate, however. They will stand for election in November 2014. Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, got a dig in at the Senate following the vote when he tweeted: “So the senate officially voted to raise its own pay before voting to raise the minimum wage. ‘Leadership.’”

The pay increase wasn’t the subject of debate on the floor, and no DFL senators stood to tell their colleagues they would dissent. But Bakk recessed during the session and pulled his caucus into a 45-minute closed-door meeting to discuss the pay issue. Final passage was an intriguing couple of minutes in which the bill appeared to be at risk of failing. In the end, swing district DFL Sens. Greg Clausen, Kevin Dahle, John Hoffman, Vicki Jensen and Susan Kent voted against the bill. Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, had initially registered a no vote but switched to vote in favor. Eken said he opposed the pay increase, but he supported other provisions in the bill, such as funding for a Beltrami County veterans facility.

“I did not agree with the [the pay increase]. That’s why I initially voted no. But when I saw the votes weren’t there to pass the bill, I thought it wasn’t worth sacrificing all the other good parts of the bill,” Eken said.

Eken has proposed legislation to place a constitutional amendment before Minnesota voters to create a compensation council outside the Legislature that has the authority to set legislator pay. Eken said he hoped that his vote for the omnibus bill will give him standing in the caucus to press for support of the pay amendment.

“I really don’t think we should be dealing with [our salary] in the Legislature,” Eken said. “I really do think it is a conflict of interest for us to be dealing with this issue. So I’m going to continue to keep pushing for that.”

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