Lawmakers keep out: Pay panel convenes

Minnesota lawmakers forfeited the politically unappealing power they had to set their own pay with a constitutional amendment voters approved last fall. Now the new Legislative Salary Council granted the authority is officially on the job.

The 16-member board got moving Wednesday after sorting through some logistical issues. They anointed leaders, got a primer on meeting transparency laws and figured out how to politely but firmly brush off lawmakers who they might come in contact with. After all, communication between the council members and the Legislature is forbidden until the panel makes its pay determination, which must happen by March 31.

The separation may seem trivial, but it’s meant to stave off lobbying of the council by those who would benefit. It could pose challenges for some on both sides because some have prior ties or political connections with members of the Legislature or sometimes happen upon lawmakers at social functions back home.

“It’s not a completely unattractive three months,” joked council member Gregory Fox of Duluth, while adding, “I think legislators will be respectful of that responsibility but there are going to be times when we are going to intersect in the normal operation of our lives.”

Said attorney Joe Boyle, a council member from International Falls: “I’d err on the side of being rude first. … If the legislator comes up to you and you know they’re a legislator, you just say, ‘I can’t talk to you.'”

In the end, the new council decided that members would self report any substantive interaction they have with a legislator. It means they won’t have to fess up to a cordial exchange in an elevator, a wave at the grocery store or, as one member acknowledged, a brief recent chat in a hotel hot tub.

By law, the council is made up of eight Democrats and eight Republicans. Two come from each congressional district and none can have served in the Legislature before or be related to someone presently in office.

Their assignment is to study Minnesota’s lawmaker pay structure and decide if salaries are too low, too high or about right. Legislators earn $31,140 a year and have since 1999 for a job considered part-time. Past efforts to boost pay — through recommendations to the Legislature — have stalled out amid concerns a vote to raise pay would be a political weapon in the next campaign.

But legislators are also eligible for daily expenses allowances _ $86 per day in the Senate; $66 a day in the House _ and receive health and pension benefits.

The council will determine only the salary end while taking the other compensation into consideration; lawmakers retain the power to set meal and lodging allowances, which can add thousands to the bottom line of legislators in a given year and bump up their pension contributions.

“Our job is a little tougher than when I first came in the room, because I was thinking total rewards, total compensation and the whole thing,” said council member Randy Twistol, director of human services at snowmobile maker Arctic Cat.  “Now it’s like one little portion of this whole pie and it’s harder to make really good decisions when all of these pieces of the pie are under their control.”

Several members said it would be a challenge to get their hands around the scope of the job of legislator and what that’s worth. One voiced concern about low pay being a deterrent to quality candidates, while another questioned the notion that it was truly a part-time job.

“My understanding is there’s a theory we pay a salary based on the notion they are part-time people. they might have another or should have another part-time job,” said William Donohue, a panel member and a retired University of Minnesota general counsel. “But that notion seems to be eroding with cell phones and demands on their time.”

Council chairman Tom Stinson, a retired state economist, said the commission will have to get creative in seeking input because of the prohibition on contacting current legislators. The board discussed convening past lawmakers to give their account of serving for the pay they got.

Whatever salary the panel decides on will take effect in July. The council is to consider pay levels every two years.