By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer
ST. PAUL — Depending on which Mankato-area state senator you ask, the recent vote to raise legislators’ salaries was either a courageous way to enable citizen-lawmaking or the wrong message to send in a time of tax and spending increases.
The Senate version of the state government funding bill includes line items as varied as $1.7 million in matching grants for public television and $30,000 for a bust of the civil rights activist Nellie Stone Johnson to be placed in the Capitol.
But the legislative salary increase, from about $31,000 to about $41,000, has attracted the most attention.
The Democrats have an 11-seat margin in the Senate but only managed to pass the bill by one vote. One of its defectors was Kevin Dahle, a Democrat from Northfield whose districts includes most of Le Sueur County.
He said he cast a “principled” vote against the pay increase. Dahle said he supports the premise of the increase — legislators haven’t gotten a raise since 1998 — but said he couldn’t vote legislators a raise if nursing home workers don’t get one.
He said nursing home workers have come to him, at least once in tears, saying they have to quit their job and work at at a grocery store to make ends meet. They haven’t had a raise from the state in five or six years, he said.
“In good conscience I had to vote ‘no’,” he said. “There are a lot of things we need to shore up before we give ourselves a raise,” including the minimum wage.
Sen. Vicki Jenson, DFL-Waseca, also voted against the bill.
Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, voted for the raise and said she still believes there is time in the session to help nursing home workers, too. But the decision by party leadership to reduce human services spending by $150 million makes that priority, among a host of others, more difficult to meet.
She voted for the pay increases for two major reasons.
First, the bill also raises pay for commissioner-level state employees, on whom Sheran said the public relies for good government at the highest levels. When the Commerce Department negotiates with insurance companies looking to get on the state-run marketplace, for example, Sheran said the public should want the state to afford a commissioner who’s as effective as the insurers’ CEOs.
Also, Sheran said, the current legislative salary isn’t enough to support a family, so legislators end up being predominantly retired or wealthy.
The raise doesn’t take effect until 2015, but if the measure gets signed into law it’s easy to imagine the attack ads Democrats will face in the fall of 2014. The law’s passage, though, isn’t nearly a sure thing. The Star Tribune and others have reported that House DFL leadership isn’t keen on the increase, though Senate leaders will push to include it in a compromise bill. Minnesota Public Radio has reported the governor supports the pay increase.
Apparently understanding that the bill may enact a political toll on Democrats, Sheran said its passage takes “strength and leadership.”
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said it was eay for her to vote “no.”
“I just don’t think it’s the right time,” she said. ... “We need to step back and look at what our priorities are.”
In response to the argument that legislators deserve higher pay, she asked “When is it enough? What is the break point?”
She said she may support such an increase when the economy improves and other government accountability measures are in place.
If the measure passes, Rosen said she would attempt to donate her increase to charity.
This story was corrected to change references to the Senate version of the bill, which does not include any appropriations for gambling addiction.