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Capital Closeup: For legislators, no easy answers on how to set their own pay

by Laura Tomaka ~ September 2013 ~ Stateline Midwest »
For the past decade and a half, the annual salary for Minnesota legislators has remained at $31,140. And state Sen. Roger Reinert says there has been a noticeable consequence of this stagnation — closing the option of legislative service to many people.
“Increasingly, we are seeing either very young or retired members [in the Legislature],” he says. “Mid-career professionals who do not reside in the Twin Cities metropolitan area struggle to maintain a work/public service balance.”
A plan to increase salaries was proposed this year (based on recommendations from the state’s Compensation Council), but failed to pass the Legislature. Lawmakers, though, did advance a plan that could eventually lead to higher pay.
Under a proposed constitutional amendment that will appear on Minnesota ballots in 2016, the authority to set the pay of state lawmakers would be shifted away from the Legislature and to an independent state commission.
“Clearly, the Legislature has not had the ability to tackle this issue, one that can easily be demagogued,” says Reinert, who supports the change. “An independent commission that can look at the balance of work versus pay, as well as comparisons with other states, should move this issue forward, and do so in a thoughtful and apolitical way.”
Who decides how much for legislators?
States in the Midwest use a variety of methods to set legislative pay.
In Nebraska, the annual salary is set in the Constitution, thus requiring voter approval for any changes.
Legislatures have more direct statutory or constitutional authority in other Midwestern states, though pay increases can occur without legislative action in some instances.
Indiana’s unique statutory formula sets legislator pay at 18 percent of that of trial court judges. The judges’ salaries are, in turn, based on a statutory formula that includes a base salary plus an annual adjustment related to raises given to top executive branch staff.
Minus legislative action, too, some states allow for automatic cost-of-living adjustments to take effect.
In Wisconsin, the decision on pay is not made by the full Legislature, but by a joint legislative committee. That committee can either adopt or amend recommendations made by the state’s director of employment relations. (The governor can veto any modifications that the committee makes to the recommendations.)
In Michigan, the full Legislature votes on salary recommendations made by a governor-appointed commission. Prior to passage of a 2002 constitutional amendment, legislative action was not required for this commission’s findings to take effect.
The constitutional change in Michigan occurred following backlash over a decision to increase legislator pay. Similarly, concerns about the process used in Illinois led to the elimination in 2009 of that state’s Compensation Review Board, whose proposed legislative pay increases took effect unless the House and Senate adopted uniform measures to alter or reject them.
North Dakota eliminated its Legislative Compensation Commission in 2011.
The next test of what voters prefer will likely occur in three years, when Minnesotans decide whether an independent, salary-setting authority is the best option for their state.

 

Capital Closeup is an ongoing series of articles done by CSG Midwest highlighting institutional issues in state government and legislatures.