There is a constitutional amendment on the Minnesota ballot this year! Statewide. (Obviously.) Here’s what it says:
Remove Lawmakers’ Power to Set Their Own Pay
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?
You can vote Yes, or No. If you leave it blank, that counts as a No.
So my first gut reaction to this is as follows: I suspect that the legislators have put this on the ballot because they would really like a raise, and they would really like it not to be on them to give themselves a raise, because if you do vote yourself a raise people will slam you for it and sometimes people will indignantly run against you because you gave yourself a raise after not accomplishing whatever it was they particularly wanted you to get done that session.
How much are legislators paid at the moment? I found that info over on the Minnesota State Legislature FAQ: a Legislator’s salary is $31,140 per year. That said, it’s allegedly not a full-time job; you’re not in session all year. If legislators have another job, the FAQ notes they’re protected from firing over their legislative-session-absence and also their employer isn’t allowed to fire them if they dislike how they voted, which is hilarious but also a good idea, I’d say.
They get a per diem during the legislative session (key, for people who live somewhere up on the Iron Range — it’s not like they can go home at night to sleep) and I was trying to find that info out from this helpful document about compensation and that wasn’t in there, but it did mention that the last time the legislature got a raise was in 1999. It also noted, “The 2013 Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment regarding how legislators’ salaries are determined. The 2014 Legislature modified the text of the proposed amendment and passed a bill that put that amendment to voters. The amendment will be voted on at the 2016 general election.” So this has been in the works for a while.
There’s a MinnPost article from 2013 about the question of whether legislators are underpaid. It covers the per diem issue but also quotes former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe on the whole “part time” issue. “It’s difficult for the public to understand that it’s really not part-time,” Moe says. “It’s a 150-percent of the time job for five or six months of the year, and about a 75-percent of the time job the rest of the year. It’s more than a full-time job and you kind of build your life around it.”
(They’re not as underpaid as the Minneapolis and probably also the St. Paul school board. I can tell you that Minneapolis school board members work a more-than-full-time job for under $15,000/year and a measurable percentage of the job is to be the target of hatred, resentment, and angry criticism. I would raise both Minneapolis and St. Paul school board members’ salaries tomorrow to a reasonable full-time salary, if I could, because I sincerely believe that they’d get better people who would be more likely to be able to solve the district’s problems if people who need to work for a living could afford to serve. That salary: also set by the legislature.)
The MinnPost article notes that the legislature has the same problem, to some degree: the skimpy pay doesn’t stop people from running, but it causes a lot of people to decide they can’t afford to run again.
The comments section on that article kind of illustrates the problem: “Slackers and lemmings not ‘entitled’ to increases.” “That does not justify higher pay because constituents did not benefit from your choice to work long hours.” Several people pointed out that we might get better, smarter people running for office if we paid them a living wage; a not-outstandingly-smart-sounding retired woman who can’t spell said she’d serve for free.
A more recent article in MinnPost talks about this issue again, noting that even mentioning legislative pay is just full-on radioactive for legislators, and that a lot of legislators wind up really struggling financially.
Apparently in New Mexico, state legislators don’t get paid at all. This piece compares legislative pay and talks about the benefits (and drawbacks) of a well-paid legislature.
Here’s the fundamental thing, I guess. I do think people should get paid fairly for their work, and that includes lawmakers. The solution to crappy legislators is kicking them out of office at election time, not saying “none of you get paid today!” I think a citizen commission will pay people fairly. (I don’t think it will pay them lavishly. I think it will compensate them reasonably for the actual hours they work, or at least, they’ll do a better job of this than the legislators can politically do for themselves.) This seems like a good idea to me and I am going to vote in favor of this amendment.