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Public pay day: What should elected officials get paid?

Look away long enough, and suddenly your part-time city councilors are paying themselves $100,000 — that was the reminder from Bell, Calif., several years ago to keep an eye on public salaries.

But few politicians in the Twin Ports will (openly) run for office for the paycheck — probably because most elected offices here don't really pay that well. While state legislators, the mayors of Duluth and Superior and St. Louis County commissioners make a livable wage with benefits, other local officeholders will need to keep their day jobs to even pay the rent.

Still, as the Duluth City Council awaits its $3,800 raise taking effect next month, the question remains: How much should elected officials get paid?

There is little research on pay for politicians beyond comparisons from city to city or state to state. There is plenty of research on corporate compensation, however, with some pretty obvious conclusions: "On average, executive pay is positively correlated to firm performance and firm size," says a 2014 report in The Economic Journal.

The same principle would appear to be true with governments: bigger jurisdiction, bigger budget, bigger pay for the decisionmakers.

Some argue public paychecks should be big enough to entice quality candidates, as with any other job; others say the privilege of public service should be reward enough.

Increasingly, these salary decisions are anxiously handed off to citizen commissions, which more often than not suggest a raise and toss the hot potato back to the elected body. Then comes the time to score political points by standing against the recommended raises, as was the case earlier this year when the Legislature was granted a pay hike by a 16-member citizens' council approved by Minnesota voters in November 2016.

"While none of us maybe wanted this outcome and didn't certainly ask for it, the independent panel chose this dollar amount," Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt told the Pioneer Press in July after he relented and allowed the House to receive a nearly $14,000 raise, its first in almost 20 years.

'All over the board'

The case for raising pay for elected officials draws on lessons from the private sector: Quality compensation will draw quality candidates.

"Even in California and other states with higher pay, compensation levels have an impact on recruitment, retention and the work of the legislature," Keon Chi, a researcher with the nonprofit Council of State Governments, said in a report. "If legislators are not paid adequately, then candidates are drawn from a smaller pool. High pay broadens that pool. You can't expect to attract good candidates with pay that is lower when compared to other jobs and professions."

Roger Reinert

Former Duluth state Sen. Roger Reinert also told that group in 2013: "Increasingly, we are seeing either very young or retired members (in the Legislature). Mid-career professionals who do not reside in the Twin Cities metropolitan area struggle to maintain a work/public service balance."

On the other hand, the public purse is already often stretched too thin, and paying officeholders too much could lead to unqualified candidates looking for a taxpayer-funded raise.

"I just believe that public service is public service, and it's a privilege," Duluth City Councilor Howie Hanson said in 2015 while voting against the council's $3,800 raises that take effect in January.

For most cities, state law simply says council members set their own pay "in such amount as they deem reasonable." For Duluth, Rochester, St. Paul and Minneapolis, council pay is set by city charter. After voters empowered Duluth's charter commission to handle council salaries, the group in 2015 gave the council its first raise since 1999.

Howie Hanson

The commission did what the League of Minnesota Cities says councils should do: Look at what other cities pay their elected bodies and pay attention to the tech, travel and per diem expenses that are in addition to salaries or stipends.

"Council can set its salary to any reasonable amount, but perhaps the best way to determine what's reasonable is by using data (for local governments)," the group says in a paper.

That could explain the decades-long gaps in raising elected pay, as few politicians want to be trailblazers when it comes to setting new standards by raising their own pay. That at least seems to be the case for school boards, which are often on the lowest end of compensation scales.

Hermantown school board members, for example, earn $35 to $45 per meeting and oversee a general fund budget of $21 million. Hermantown City Council members, to compare, receive $600 per month to work with a budget of $5.1 million. Time spent at meetings, working with constituents and many other factors play into elected officials' pay as well, however.

"School boards should have local control, and they know best what to set their pay at based on what their taxpayers can afford," said Minnesota School Board Association spokesman Greg Abbott, whose group has no guidance for school board pay. "It's all over the board. There's no set pay — it's not like there's a Department of Administration rule or any kind of law that says all board members will be paid X."

Can I get a raise?

A study by Stanford researchers shows that higher pay and/or better benefits for elected officials could make them more responsive to voters and less likely to cater to special interests, which is a great thing to say when asking your bosses (the voters) for a raise.

But a common theme from those looking at boosting politician pay centers more around inclusivity.

"The council believes it is important to preserve the Minnesota Legislature as a citizens' legislature," the state Legislative Salary Council wrote earlier this year, "a part-time legislature where any Minnesotan could consider serving, and where a broad and diverse mix of backgrounds and life experiences are represented among the members."

That argument was echoed when the Duluth City Council approved its commission-recommended raises in 2015, and it was used early in 2016 when the Duluth School Board considered boosting its stipend.

Annie Harala

"We're looking at the changing demographic of elected officials, and wanting to make sure we are engaging young professionals and people with families to be able to run in the future," school board member Annie Harala said before the $73 per month raise was tabled. The school board reviews its monthly stipend at the start of each year and last raised it in 2008.

The Duluth City Council gave the mayor a sizeable raise in 2013 — from $78,000 to $97,500 — after 14 years at the same salary, saying it was needed to keep quality candidates running.

Then-Mayor Don Ness declined to accept the raise, though neither candidate in the 2015 election made much of an issue out of it.

Emily Larson

"The council has set the salary, and I would intend to just allow the council to have set that salary," Mayor Emily Larson said before that election. And so it was.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks covers business and the economy for the Duluth News Tribune.

(218) 723-5329
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