Bill would allow panel to set salaries for governor, cabinet, since Legislature won’t do it
Lawmakers have only given constitutional officers one raise in nearly two decades
State representatives on the House floor on Monday, March 27, 2023. (Nicole Neri for the Minnesota Reformer)
Minnesota’s governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state auditor and secretary of state have received just one raise in nearly two decades, likely complicated by the need for the Legislature to give them one.
As a result, dozens of lawyers who work for Attorney General Keith Ellison make more than their boss.
Gov. Tim Walz’s administration and the DFL-majority House proposed taking the politically charged decision out of the Legislature’s hands, and it’s on the cusp of passage.
That’s what voters did in 2016, giving the Legislative Salary Council binding authority to raise lawmaker salaries, which they’ve raised from $31,140 to $51,750 in the past five years.
A different panel called the Minnesota Compensation Council has made nonbinding recommended salary increases for constitutional officers for years, only to be ignored by the Legislature. The council didn’t even meet in 2003, 2011 and 2015.
Given the Legislature’s long history of inaction, the compensation council supports creating a new entity similar to the Legislative Salary Council to set the salaries of constitutional officers and state agency heads without legislative approval.
That means lawmakers won’t have to vote to give the governor a raise, which could otherwise draw the ire of pitchfork-wielding constituents unhappy with Walz or some future governor.
The 16-member compensation council has recommended modest pay raises for constitutional officers since 2001, but the Legislature has only boosted their salaries once since 2003, when modest cost-of-living increases were made in 2015 and 2016.
Their salaries have lagged behind cost-of-living increases by more than 50% during that time, the council says.
Meanwhile, the state has lost people like Myron Frans — the top budget official for Walz and former Gov. Mark Dayton — who left a state government job that paid $155,000 annually for a job as vice president of the University of Minnesota where he was hired for more than twice that.
The council recommended lawmakers increase salaries for the state’s five constitutional officers by 9% this year and 7.5% next year. That would increase the governor’s salary from about $128,000 to $150,000 in 2024; the lieutenant governor’s from about $83,000 to $97,000; the attorney general’s from about $121,000 to $142,000; the state auditor’s from about $108,000 to $127,000; the secretary of state’s salary would equal the state auditor’s, going from about $96,000 to $127,000.
The salary of Minnesota’s governor — who oversees about 55,000 employees and a biennial budget of more than $55 billion — ranks 37th in the nation, down from 13th in 2003, according to the council. Three of the four surrounding states pay their governors more.
“The natural consequence of the increasing compensation gap is that candidates who have greater personal financial constraints will likely not run for office,” the council wrote in its most recent recommendations.
The council also recommends salaries for judges and Supreme Court justices and heads of state agencies. Its members are appointed by the governor and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
The House’s state government budget bill proposed having the compensation council decide on salary increases; the Senate bill merely enacted the council’s recommended raises. The two sides are working on the issue in a conference committee, which is a panel comprising members of both chambers who work out a compromise.
Rep. Ginny Klevorn, DFL-Plymouth, co-chair of the conference committee, said they’re looking at creating a 24-member committee, with eight members appointed by the Legislature, eight by the governor and eight by the judiciary. They would not decide judges’ salaries, since the state constitution requires the Legislature to set those.
James Robins served on the Compensation Council in 2017 and 2019 but declined a seat in 2021 primarily because the Legislature was ignoring their recommendations. Earlier this session, he told lawmakers the council needs more than three months to deliberate salaries; lobbyists should be banned from serving on the council if they begin deciding salaries for state agency heads and constitutional officers; and the Legislature should also appoint members to the council.
But some question the constitutionality of the change and whether the Legislature should cede the power of the purse.
Former state Rep. Nick Zerwas, a Republican from Elk River and vice chairman of the compensation council, said Minnesota Department of Management and Budget officials briefed the council on the proposal and said their attorneys and the governor’s office believe the change would be constitutional.
The Legislative Salary Council bans lobbyists, and if the Legislature decided the same for a restructured compensation council, “I’d totally get that,” said Zerwas, who is a lobbyist for Jacobson Law Group.
While judges’ salaries have fared pretty well, state commissioners and constitutional officers’ salaries have not kept pace with the market, he said. The attorney general, for example, makes less than 79 of his managers and attorneys.
“I think there is something to be said about making sure that for jobs that take that much of yourself, your time, your family — that compensation needs to be in line with that,” Zerwas said.
Setting salaries was politically challenging for lawmakers; rather than give themselves a raise, they’d often skip it because it wasn’t worth the heat, he said.
When he was in the Legislature, he didn’t want to abdicate the Legislature’s authority to set legislative salaries, but he’s come to appreciate the importance of depoliticizing the process.
“There are enough things for the political parties in St. Paul to fight about,” he said.
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