Updated at 1:30 p.m. with additional comment
House Speaker Kurt Daudt said Tuesday he is having legislative legal and human resources staff examine whether a hefty pay raise for lawmakers is truly binding or if the Legislature can summarily turn it down.
The raise takes lawmaker salaries from about $31,000 to $45,000 beginning in July, a 45 percent jump that the Legislative Salary Council framed as a catch-up for years of stagnant pay.
The 16-member, bipartisan council was created by a voter-approved constitutional amendment in November. The panel issued its decision on Friday, but it’s still up to the Legislature to allocate more than $2.8 million to cover the costs. Daudt said the review seeks to answer whether the pay raise is indeed mandatory.
“If it’s not, we will probably look at not doing it,” Daudt said.
“Think about if this is binding on us, it means I have to give, or we have to give legislators a pay increase when we can’t give that same kind of pay increase to school kids or senior citizens, the disability community, you pick your interest group that is frankly deserving of some increase,” Daudt said. “That’s the tough position it puts us in.”
Daudt said he and most Republicans opposed the constitutional amendment when the Legislature put it on the ballot, arguing it was misleading. The wording asked voters if they wanted to remove the power of lawmakers to set their own base pay, which they hadn’t changed since 1999.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said voters spoke in the fall and the Legislature might have no choice but follow through.
“Whether we do anything or not the constitution has mandated that that salary be paid,” Gazelka said. “An individual legislator can say I don’t want that salary, but the actual allocation of it is going to happen if we do anything or not.”
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, agreed.
“I would encourage those that don’t think they’re deserving of it, they should consider giving it to charity. I can think of any number of charities that would be appreciative,” Bakk said, adding that he’s perplexed by the “anxiety” surrounding the raise. “They swore the day they got sworn in they would uphold the constitution. This now is a provision of the constitution.”
The DFL was in full legislative control when the measure was sent to the ballot, but now that Republicans are in control they’re forced to deal with any pay-raise fallout. The irony isn’t lost on Daudt, who is weighing a run for governor in 2018.
“Democrats, I’m sure are licking their chops saying, `We’re going to get Republicans on this,'” Daudt said. “This was Democrats lock, stock and barrel.”
The Legislative Salary Council strongly urged that lawmakers revisit daily expense allowances, known as per diem, to either get rid of them or make the payments reflect actual out-of-pocket expenses. House members can take $66 per day during session; senators can claim $86.
Daudt said per diem adjustments for meals and incidental expenses are on the table, but he said it is an important fixture for rural members who have to keep up two households during the four-to-five month sessions.
Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said the goal of the constitutional amendment was to take the pay debate out of the Capitol. He helped draft the amendment and said the word of the council was designed to be final.
“I assumed this was an issue that we in the Legislature would no longer be focusing on so we could focus on our constituents,” Eken said. “This was a constitutional amendment passed by the people. And the people’s voice is louder than any legislator or the Legislature together. We must comply with what the people voted for.”