ST. PAUL, Minn. — Far below the ballot ovals for the presidential race, Minnesota voters will answer a critical question that has vexed state lawmakers for years: Should they be setting their own pay?
It comes in the form of the constitutional amendment that would hand the power to set salaries to an independent body. That could solve a political nightmare for lawmakers who haven’t received a raise for nearly two decades, but few legislators or outside political groups are talking about it on the campaign trail.
Here’s a look at what’s on the ballot and why.
The constant refrain that Minnesota lawmakers are underpaid has been matched only by the fear of political backfire if they vote for an increase.
Minnesota’s 201 part-time legislators are paid about $31,000 a year, though House and Senate leaders make more. Per diems — a daily expense allowance — can bump that up another $9,000 or $10,000. It’s been that way since 1999, the last year the Legislature approved a raise.
That puts Minnesota in the middle of the pack for legislator salaries nationwide. Calls to raise that have grown, with some lawmakers saying their duties are increasingly feeling like a full-time job. Proponents of higher pay say that the current compensation discourages some people from running in the first place.
An advisory council’s recommendation to boost lawmaker salaries by about $10,000 in 2013 triggered the latest vote, but that effort stalled in the House that year. Soon after, the constitutional amendment was put in place.
Sen. Kent Eken thinks it’s a no-brainer: Politicians shouldn’t be voting on their own pay.
“This is the most glaring, clear conflict of interest there is in the Legislature,” the Twin Valley Democrat said. “We should be focusing on our constituents, not on our pay.”
Eken had pushed for the amendment for years before it was successfully passed in 2013. To him, it’s not about securing a raise for lawmakers but to make it an objective, independent decision. The amendment would set up a 16-member body — half Democrats and half Republicans. None could be current or former lawmakers or state officials or their relatives.
While many states have created external bodies to make salary recommendations or tie automatic salary increases to inflation, just two have the unilateral power to set legislator pay — California and Washington. In two other states, Arizona and Nebraska, voters have to sign off on salary changes.
The question that will face voters on the ballot: “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?”
Rep. Steve Drazkowski called the amendment an obvious work-around to get that raise, citing the previous recommendations from advisory bodies.
“This came from inside the Legislature, written by legislators, in response to failed attempts to raise their pay,” said Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa. “If they believe that’s the right thing to do, they should have the courage … to vote for it.”
A QUIET CAMPAIGN
Despite strong feelings on either side, those opinions aren’t making their way to voters.
No campaigns have registered to support or oppose the amendment, according to campaign finance filings. Compare that to the last two proposed constitutional amendments in 2012, when millions of dollars were spent on measures that would have banned same-sex marriage and imposed voter ID before both were rejected.
“It sells itself,” Eken said. “There’s not really a need to organize a campaign in support of it because it makes so much sense.”
Yet Eken sometimes worries that the lack of information about the amendment could lead to its failure because of how Minnesota tallies the votes — a blank vote counts as a no. He hopes that all voters make it to the bottom of the ballot and agree with him that it’s a common-sense proposal.
But Drazkowski said lawmakers in St. Paul should retain the power to set their pay. The political pressure that’s kept pay level is a healthy thing, he said — it means voters have shown they don’t think legislators deserve a raise.