State to state, legislative pay differs

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

Wisconsin has a leg up on Minnesota, at least in terms of legislative pay.

Badger State legislators make about $20,000 more a year than their Minnesota brethren, who pull down about $31,000 a year. Yet comparing legislative pay state to state is an inexact science.

The National Conference of State Legislatures noted in a recent analysis that in some states, such as Wisconsin, service in the legislature is seen as basically a full-time job.

The conference lumps Minnesota and 22 other states into a middle group, states in which lawmakers report legislative duties as equaling about two-thirds of a full-time job. Iowa, whose legislators earn $25,000 a year, is in this group.

Neighboring North Dakota was placed into a third group in the analysis, one in which lawmakers characterize performing their duties as a half-time job. North Dakota lawmakers earn $157 a day during sessions, with lodging reimbursement.

Unlike Minnesota, the North Dakota Legislature meets every other year.

Pictured are members of the Minnesota Legislature taking the oath of office. Legislative pay differs widely among the United States’ 50 state legislatures. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Pictured are members of the Minnesota Legislature taking the oath of office. Legislative pay differs widely among the United States’ 50 state legislatures. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Actually, Minnesota did the same for decades. But a constitutional amendment approved by Minnesota voters in 1972 affecting the definition of a “legislative day” allows for, but does not require, the legislature to meet every year. Since 1973, it has.

Two-year, or biennial, sessions convene in January of odd-number years, with the first year session extending into May. The second year, the so-called “short year” or “bonding year,” often begins in February — Feb. 25 is start date for next year — and typically runs into late spring.

Special sessions, like one called for by Gov. Mark Dayton in September, are frequent enough for state Capitol wags to quip, “What’s so special about special sessions?”

Beyond differences in salaries and perceived workloads, per diem rates also differ between statehouses.

In Illinois, a state deemed to have essentially a full-time legislature with lawmakers knocking down $68,000 a year, lawmaker per diem is up to $111 per session day. In Michigan, another state considered to have basically a full-time legislature and where lawmakers earn about $72,000 per year, a $10,800 yearly expense allowance is provided, according to the national conference.

What individual lawmakers cost taxpayers, beyond their salary, depends on where they live, the mileage they claim and the per diem amount they take. These things are political, but also personal.

In the Minnesota Senate, Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, stood out for his Spartan attitude toward per diem — he took none during the 2011-12 biennial session. But this session things changed.

“I’m joining the club,” Chamberlain, who claimed $11,438 in per diem so far in 2013, said.

Chamberlain’s decision to take per diem reflects the Legislature becoming his only job and the indifference the public showed. Other than a news story or two, his self-imposed ban went unnoticed, he said. He never heard anything from the voters at the door, he said.

Indeed, when first joining the Senate, he was told the public didn’t care about per diem, Chamberlain said.

“There are abuses (of per diem), like anything else,” Chamberlain said.

For outstate lawmakers, though, allowing additional expenses is critical, Chamberlain said.

Besides Chamberlain, three House Democrats in 2012 claimed no per diem pay: Rep. Steve Simon, of Hopkins; Rep. Shannon Savick, of Wells; and Rep. Tina Liebling, of Rochester.


Tim Budig is at [email protected].



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