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Freezes vs. pay cuts

Date Published: 05/01/2009


Freezes vs. pay cuts
There's more symbolism than substance to the dust-up in the state Senate last week over salaries and staff hires. The call by several Republicans for a 5 percent wage cut for legislators would save chump change in comparison to a deficit of more than $5 billion. And legislative salaries are also so low -- $31,140, plus expense allowances (per diem) of up to about $13,000 more per year for senators, $10,000 more for House members -- that each year, talented lawmakers leave office because they cannot afford to serve. Legislators haven't had a salary increase in 10 years.

Senate DFL Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller countered with some symbolism of his own -- an announcement of a hiring freeze that had been in force in a de facto way for many months. In fact, the Senate's total staff numbers, partisan and nonpartisan, are down more than 10 percent since 2003, saving the state $1.5 million per year, said majority caucus spokesman Gary Hill.

But an important bit of interparty comity got caught in the symbolism crossfire. Senate tradition allows each caucus the freedom to hire and fire its own partisan staff. The Senate GOP caucus was on the verge of hiring a new chief of staff when the de facto hiring freeze was made official. Senate Republicans were justified in crying foul. DFLers who counter that the new Republican hire, combined with the demotion of the former GOP staff chief, would have left the minority caucus with a disproportionately large staff should have brought that issue separately to the Rules and Administration Committee.

Legislative compensation and staffing have been political footballs almost since statehood. That's why the Constitution allows legislators to raise their next session successors' salaries, but not their own. Rather than watching the symbolism football move, this Capitol spectator would rather see a bipartisan huddle that produced a modern compensation system, one that boosted salaries, assured regular cost-of-living raises, and replaced per diem with reimbursement of documented business expenses.


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