Minnesota Voters Spoke; Daudt Not Listening

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Minnesota Voters Spoke; Daudt Not Listening

by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Minnesota Republican Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt is rumored to be considering a run for the governorship in 2018. As with all politicians considering a run for higher office, he is carefully calculating his actions in light of how they will play with citizens across the state next year. Such calculation often puts politicians in untenable situations where common sense and political courage take a back seat.

Last fall Minnesota voters overwhelmingly chose to give the authority to raise legislator salaries to the independent citizen Legislative Salary Council. The constitutional amendment granting the authority passed with 76 percent approval –an amazingly high percentage considering all ballots on which a person didn’t check a box were considered no votes.

Legislators drafted the ballot language several years ago after proposal after proposal to increase their pay died. Members of the state House and Senate have always known that opponents in the next election will use pay raises against them. “Not only didn’t they accomplish anything last year, they also gave themselves a raise!” That is just one of the likely campaign slogans a member of the Legislature would have to face if he or she had voted for a raise.

That fear has kept legislators from raising their pay above the base salary of $31,140 for the past 17 years.

Low pay was cited as one of the primary reasons that good members of the Legislature were deciding against running for re-election and for why good new candidates were so hard to find. Too many found the pay wasn’t enough to support a family.
 

“Legislators do not want to be voting on our pay. It feels wrong,” state Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, one of the amendment’s chief supporters, said ahead of the election. “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.”

Eken acknowledged that taking the authority to give the members of the Legislature a raise out of lawmakers’ hands might make it easier for them to get a raise. “Could it lead to a pay increase?” he asked. “It’s possible.”

It wasn’t just possible, it was far more likely, and lawmakers knew that. It’s why they wanted the amendment on the ballot. Earlier this month the Legislative Salary Council made up of eight citizens appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and eight by the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, decided to jump lawmaker salaries in July from $31,140 a year to $45,000 a year.

The council compared what Minnesota legislators make to what other legislators around the country make, assessing the work they do for the pay they get, and then decided on the pay raise it recommended. Despite their work, Daudt is treating the council’s proposal like kryptonite.

Last week Daudt rejected the recommended pay raise, ordering the House’s budget office to ignore the council’s proposal. His edict applied only to the 134 members of the state House. Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has said he will not follow Daudt’s lead for the 67 members of the state Senate.

“House Republicans are working hard to pass common-sense policies aimed at growing good-paying jobs for Minnesotans,” Daudt said in a news release. “Middle-class families’ needs must come first – tax relief, lower health care costs, improved roads and bridges, and strong schools. We are choosing not to fund the Council’s recommendation to increase salaries for members of the House.” If that statement sounds like campaign jargon you would be right in your assessment.

While the council makes the recommendation on legislator pay, the Legislature approves the funding for the wages. Daudt claims that gives it final say on the raises –and since he is the highest ranking member of the House, he believes he has the authority to stop the raises.

His stand is at odds with the constitutional amendment passed by Minnesota voters that was supposed to be the final word on raises.

Fellow Republican Gazelka has said he thinks voters made it “pretty clear” they wanted decisions on salaries taken out of the Legislature’s hands. “The people voted by large margins to have an outside group determine the salaries, and now it is directly directed by the constitution,” he said. “I’m moving on to dealing with the budget, to fixing health care, roads and bridges.”

Gazelka isn’t running for any higher office in 2018 – you think that might have anything to do with his blunt honesty? Maybe. But he has also shown an unpolitician-like honesty on other issues as well.

If Daudt continues to block the increase he has been told he can expect to be challenged in court.

“What voters said on the ballot was take the pay issue out of the Legislature, let us do it as citizens, tell you what we think your job was worth and don’t bicker about it,” Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, said. “They wanted a Legislature that was diverse and was representative about all walks of life in the state.” Metsa was a sponsor of the bill that put the pay issue on the ballot and its intent was to take the Legislature out of any decision making on pay raises.

But getting sued may be Daudt’s strategy. If the courts order him to comply, it gives him cover. He can say he fought it when he starts campaigning for governor. Perhaps, we are being a little cynical – but listening to politicians can do that to a person.

Tom Stinson, chairman of the commission that approved the new salaries, said it would not bring a lawsuit to enforce the recommendation. He also said the commission didn’t consider recommending a lower pay raise just to make it acceptable to legislators afraid of voter criticism.

The Legislature put itself in this position by denying raises for so long that the council was required to recommend a “catch up” raise to bring legislator pay up to date after 17 years of political fear. Let that be a lesson to legislators for turning hard work over to people who don’t have to pay any consequences for making a reasonable, long overdue decision. If you want control, act with courage.

 

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