Legislative notebook: Voters to decide if council should set lawmaker pay

Nornes

By Don Davis

Minnesota voters will decide in 2016 whether decisions about how much legislators are paid should be handed to an independent group.

The House and Senate passed the proposed constitutional amendment in the closing days of the 2013 session. Gov. Mark Dayton has no say in the issue; it goes directly to voters.

“There is a glaring conflict of interest,” Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said about the current system in which lawmakers set their own pay.

Under the constitutional amendment he and Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, propose, the Legislature still would decide issues such as housing allowances and per diem, a payment for each day legislators work.

Four states have established councils to take salary decisions away from lawmakers.

Most Minnesota lawmakers are paid $31,500 annually, a figure set in 1999. Legislative leaders make slightly more.

In a state government financing bill this year, senators approved a $42,000 paycheck in two years, but that provision dropped out when negotiators merged the House and Senate versions of the overall bill.

Raising pay is such a political liability that it seldom makes much progress when someone suggests it.

Seeking gas answers

Rep. Bud Nornes wants to know why Minnesotans are paying the highest gasoline prices in the country “this side of Hawaii.”

On Tuesday, the Fergus Falls Republican sent Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson a letter asking that she investigate the situation.

“Everybody is upset about it,” he said.

Minnesota prices are well into the mid-$4 range, in some cases $1 a gallon more than a few weeks ago.

The situation is blamed on Illinois refineries shutting down for routine maintenance, and prices are expected to fall in early summer when refineries resume normal operation.

Nornes said he wonders why refineries are not required to stagger their maintenance outages.

Since surveys show that other spending declines when gas prices rise, he said the issue affects Minnesotans’ pocketbooks.

Voting trial program

Voters in five communities likely will be part of a trial project for electronic poll books.

A bill awaiting Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature establishes a pilot project in Dilworth, Minnetonka, Moorhead, St. Anthony and St. Paul to test the poll books.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is to exchange the current paper books, used to check off voters at elections, for computerized versions. Supporters of the change say it would reduce election fraud.

The project could begin as soon as elections this year. A task force is to check on its progress and report back to the Legislature next year.

The provision is in a bill that also would allow residents to vote absentee without an excuse and a measure requiring the Corrections Department to give the secretary of state’s office a list of people who have lost their right to vote.

More Kirkbride time

A building on the former Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center campus gained a couple of years in a last-minute deal to pass a public works financing bill.

The Kirkbride building has not been used by the state as a mental health facility for years, but since the city took it over it had not sold. Now, however, it appears a sale is in the works, Rep. Bud Nornes said, and the newly passed legislation can help the city close the deal.

An earlier public works bill approved spending $400,000 to either improve the facility or demolish it if no buyers were found. The permission to use the money is expiring, and late Monday the Legislature approved the provision to keep the money available to Fergus Falls until the end of 2016.

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