By Don Davis
Kent Eken sat with 65 other Minnesota senators for several long minutes late Tuesday afternoon, waiting on the outcome of a vote that would approve state legislative and executive branch pay raises.
With two big voting boards in the Senate chamber showing a 33-33 tie on the measure, which would have defeated it, the Twin Valley Democrat changed from a “no” vote to “yes,” and acting President Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, quickly ended voting so the bill passed 34-32.
With his change of heart, Eken became the deciding vote for the pay raises and other state government funding in the bill.
“The one thing I didn’t agree with in this bill was the pay issue,” Eken told Forum News Service. “I originally voted no, but when I saw that the votes weren’t there to pass the bill I thought it wasn’t worth sacrificing all of the other good parts of this bill.”
Among items Eken said he supported was additional spending on veterans’ programs and a provision that would allow the state Veterans Affairs Department to open a veterans’ nursing home in Beltrami County. The bill does not appropriate money for the project and Veterans Affairs officials say their priority is to finish work on the Minneapolis Veterans’ Home before looking at opening new nursing homes.
After the vote, the first-year senator promoted a constitutional amendment proposal he made as a House member. It would remove pay decisions from the Legislature.
“I really do think it is a conflict of interest for us to be dealing with it,” Eken said.
Eken’s change left five Democrats and all Republicans opposing the bill.
The only mention of the raises in the Senate came when bill sponsor Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, quickly described the bill. He did not provide specifics on the raises, but it is a politically sensitive subject and senators were well aware of it.
“It’s a tough vote,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.
The overall bill would spend $924 million in the next two years, funding the Legislature, executive offices and a range of departments from the Arts Board to Historical Society to Minnesota Management and Budget.
For lawmakers, the bill would increase salaries from the current $31,000, which has been the standard for nearly 15 years, to $42,000 in 2016.
Bakk said he supports the raises because without them the Legislature could be dominated by the retired, rich and those who cannot find other jobs.
“It is about the next generation of people who come to the Senate,” he said.
Democratic senators took an hour-long break during debate on the bill to talk privately. Bakk said they considered removing the pay provisions, but opted to leave them in.
Two Republican leaders decried the raises, saying they show how Democrats want to spend more money, but said they would accept the money if the Legislature eventually approves.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said he would donate any raise to charity, but Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and Assistant Minority Leader David Thompson, R-Lakeville, said they would follow whatever law Democrats in charge of the Legislature pass.
“It was part of a larger bill,” Thompson said. “The focus needs to be is what are the Democrats doing here generally.”
“This is part of the DFL budget,” Hann said, hinting the higher pay could become a campaign issue.
A compensation council recommended the higher salaries for legislators, the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor and judges. The Legislature and governor must approve.
The governor, whose $120,000 annual salary ranks 32nd in the country, would receive an increase to $128,000 in 2016. Other top state officials would receive similar-sized raises.
A similar pay raise is not in a related House bill, but a conference committee could insert it next month.
Also in the state departments finance bill:
— The Sunset Commission is killed. Legislators established the commission to review state agencies now and then to see if they should continue to exist.
— State and local officials on military duty would continue to receive their government pay.
— Red and white striped or red, white and blue striped barber poles only could be used by barbers.
— Cosmetologists, nail technicians and others would be required to take continuing education courses.
— House and Senate budgets would increase 9 percent.