Our view / Minnesota Legislature: Senate vote to raise own pay ill-advisedMinnesota state senators receive $31,000 now, and have for the past 15 years. They voted 34-32 to increase that to $42,000 by 2016, a 35 percent bump.
Let’s start with where Duluth’s state senator, Roger Reinert, was very much in the right.
“The timing was terrible,” Reinert told the News Tribune Opinion page of his vote in April to raise his own pay and the pay of other senators and some state-employed officials.
Minnesota state senators receive $31,000 now, and have for the past 15 years. They voted 34-32 to increase that to $42,000 by 2016, a 35 percent bump. Put another way, they voted for a beefier than 10 percent pay raise every year for the next three years. (In addition, lawmakers receive per diems that are said to average about $5,000 to $9,000 annually.)
What hardworking Minnesotan wouldn’t love pay increases like that? But few of us have the luxury of an elected official to dictate our own salaries.
“If it was my decision that vote never would have been out there, especially at a time when we’re trying to balance the budget and we’re talking about tax increases to bring financial stability,” Reinert said.
He only voted for the increase, he explained, because the same bill contained funding for the commissioning ceremony this fall of the USS Minnesota, a “fast attack” submarine. That’s something Reinert, a Reserve Navy officer, believes in and supports strongly.
Also, he continued, low legislative pay may be keeping qualified Minnesotans from considering a run for public office.
“You get what you pay for,” Reinert said. “In the five years I’ve been here I’ve seen a dramatic shift in the composition of the Legislature to either very young (lawmakers) or (those) who are retired. The demographic invested in the next 30 years of the state’s future is noticeably missing. People who have families and have homes aren’t here.
“At some point that has to be talked about,” he said.
Fellow DFL Sen. Tony Lourey of Kerrick also voted for his pay increase, agreeing with Reinert and others that more compensation is needed to attract strong candidates.
“I don’t view this as so much about me individually as it is about the future of the Legislature,” Lourey said in a written statement to the News Tribune Opinion page in response to a request for comment. “This proposal is based on a very strong recommendation of the nonpartisan Compensation Council, which pointed out how far behind Minnesota is due to decades of inaction. We as a state need to be able to attract bright, talented and innovative legislators with diverse and meaningful experience on both sides of the aisle. We want to be able to ask people from across the state with a variety of backgrounds — not just the wealthiest who can afford it — to serve the state of Minnesota and help make it be the best it can be, now, and for future generations.”
Lourey’s comments echoed those of fellow DFL Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook, who told a Forum Communications reporter he voted for the pay raise to keep the Legislature from being dominated by retired or rich people or by those who can’t find other work.
Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, did not respond to a News Tribune Opinion page request for an explanation of his “yes” vote.
Whether any lawmaker’s pay actually goes up remains unclear. A related House bill did not include the pay raises. But Sen. Bakk and Gov. Mark Dayton could slip it into one of the state government finance bills during conference committee. Nothing is ever really completely dead in the Minnesota Capitol.
Whether the hefty hikes in pay happen or not, let’s finish with where Reinert and other senators were very much in the wrong.
None ofthe justifications they shared in this editorial were shared publicly. Their vote for a pay raise was taken with no public debate whatsoever. Such a vote deserves at least a conversation and explanation.
In addition, Reinert or another senator could have introduced an amendment to remove the pay-raise portion from the rest of the bill, allowing its more favorable parts to still be approved. But no such amendment was offered.
It would have been “bad form,” Reinert said; doing that would indicate a lack of support for a fellow DFLer.
If that’s the case it’s yet another example of party politics trumping doing what’s right. Only five DFLers — and none of them from Northeastern Minnesota — joined all 27 Republicans in the Senate in voting “no.”
Finally, as Reinert said first, the timing was terrible. The vote came on the heels of a recession that left many Minnesotans scrambling for work and those fortunate enough to have jobs enjoying only slight pay increases or no increases at all. The vote also came during a legislative session that could leave Minnesotans scrambling to pay as much as $2 billion in new and increased taxes on everything from clothes to beer to car repairs to aspirin.
A pay increase for politicians? No year is a good year for them to bring it up, it seems. But definitely not this year.