Our View / Ballot Question: Remove politics from politicians’ pay
Even a whisper by elected officials of raising their own pay can be political suicide. They know that. For even bringing it up, they'd be chastised and branded as selfish and greedy and as politicians interested only in feasting from the public t...
Even a whisper by elected officials of raising their own pay can be political suicide. They know that. For even bringing it up, they’d be chastised and branded as selfish and greedy and as politicians interested only in feasting from the public trough.
Duluth faced that dilemma a year ago when there was a debate here over how to set city councilors’ pay. Voters across Minnesota wrestle with the issue
Nov. 8 with a statewide ballot question that asks: “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?”
As careful as Minnesotans should always be about amending the Constitution, in this instance, they can do like Duluthians did and remove the politics from politicians’ pay adjustments, whether up or down, by voting “yes” for an independent body to take on the responsibility - and to take it away from the darned-if-they do, darned-if-they-don’t politicians.
“It’s a clear and glaring conflict of interest,” Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said in a Rochester Post-Bulletin report in September after he sponsored the bill for the ballot measure.
“Legislators do not want to be voting on our pay. It feels wrong,” Eken said in June in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio. “If you look at the constitutional amendment, it makes no comments whatsoever on what the pay should be. It’s all about who should set it. And we are not the objective ones, so we should not be the ones setting it.”
As logical and sensible as that seems, at least one lawmaker fears a vote for an independent body is a vote for an instant legislative pay raise. That’s because an existing pay commission has recommended lawmakers’ salaries be raised.
And maybe an adjustment is needed. With few lawmakers willing to broach the subject and then face voters, legislative salaries haven’t been touched since 1999. Lawmakers make $31,141 per year plus per diems for daily expenses. The per diems increase some lawmakers’ salaries by as much as 50 percent. Minnesota ranks 19th of the 39 states that pay annual legislative salaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The amount Minnesota lawmakers make, no matter who’s setting and reviewing it, ought to always be fair and appropriate. That can be the goal, both out of respect for the work and responsibility we expect of our elected leaders and so serving in public office isn’t a turnoff for qualified, quality candidates willing to give back but without the means to. Our democracy is better served if public office isn’t reserved only for those who are already wealthy.
With fair and appropriate pay as the goal, an automatic pay raise is hardly assured, no matter how any lawmaker may feel.
Appropriate pay for lawmakers has the best chance of being realized and maintained with the independent commission proposed to be created with a “yes” vote on Nov. 8. The commission would have an equal number of Democrats and Republicans picked from all of the state’s congressional districts. The governor and Minnesota Supreme Court chief would each pick one member from each of the districts. The commission’s membership couldn’t include lobbyists, judges, constitutional office holders, current or former legislators, the spouses of current legislators, or legislative employees.
“You don’t run for legislator to make money. That should never be, and certainly in our state isn’t, one of the reasons people would ever run for office,” Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester said, according to MPR. “But you shouldn’t be hurt financially when you are trying to serve your community.”
How much we pay our elected leaders demands to be appropriate and fair, both to the taxpaying citizens funding the salaries and to those they choose to represent them. The amount needn’t be extravagant. And setting the amount oughtn’t be political - or political suicide.
Minnesota voters can assure all of that by voting “yes” on Nov. 8.