Melissa Hortman's September 18, 2018 Editorial in the Star Tribune

Here's Why Legislative Pay Increase is at Issue
Melissa Hortman

Minnesotans rightfully expect lawmakers to put the critical needs of their families and communities first. Contrary to the assertion of a Sept. 5 (“DFL’s claim isn’t true on legislative pay”), Minnesota House Republicans went in the opposite direction when they passed a bill that funded the Legislature -  including legislator salaries that increased 45 percent - on the third day of the 2018 session. What followed that vote was months of Republican inaction and failure to compromise on issues that affect Minnesota families. When voters approved a constitutional amendment to put legislative pay into the hands of an independent council, they didn’t expect Minnesota Republicans to fund a legislative pay raise and do little else.

When we approached the start of the legislative session in February, members of the Legislature - both across the state and across the aisle - were optimistic that they could work together to tackle significant problems. There were common-sense solutions on the table to address issues like elder abuse in senior care facilities, gun-violence prevention in our schools and communities, the growing opioid epidemic, reducing health care costs, protecting Minnesotans from adverse effects of President Donald Trump’s tax bill and more.

Instead, Republicans dug their heels in, refusing to work with Gov. Mark Dayton or advocates from across the state to pass many things that were never even viewed as controversial. The reason is simple: After taking care of themselves, House Republicans made sure to take care of the corporate special interests who fund their campaigns. Big corporations used their backroom lobbying muscle to stop solutions for Minnesotans. These included Big Pharma, which Republicans refused to hold accountable through a modest penny-a-pill fee for tragedies caused by opioids; the industry that profits off our seniors, which they allowed to water down AARP-recommended changes designed to protect elders in nursing homes; the gun lobby, which successfully stopped efforts to pass criminal background checks on all gun sales; and more. Republicans also put corporate special interests first when they failed to pass bipartisan legislation to stop workplace sexual harassment.

After all that, when the time came to extend investments for pre-K education, deliver emergency school aid for districts experiencing massive budget crunches or fix sky-high health insurance premiums, House Republicans told Minnesotans to forget it.

The dumbfounding agenda from House Republicans didn’t stop there. Until almost the last minute in May, the Republican majority held hostage overdue fixes to our public pensions system and ratification of state worker contracts. These two measures were negotiated for a long time - several years in the case of the pension bill - and should have been approved by the Legislature before a vote on lawmaker pay. The worker contracts included just modest wage increases for Minnesotans including prison guards and those who provide care to veterans, and protected retirements for teachers and police officers. While Republican legislators made sure they could cash in right away, workers were made to wait at the back of the line.

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt repeatedly acknowledged that funding the pay raise was a choice and that there were other issues more important. He initially said the House wouldn’t provide the funding to cover legislators’ increased salaries. “For us to accept that pay when others are not getting that kind of pay increase really would be wrong,” Daudt told the Associated Press in March 2017. At the same time, the Star Tribune reported that “his decision is not motivated by politics, but rather, out of solidarity with Minnesotans he said haven’t seen similar pay increases. ‘Middle-class families’ needs must come first - tax relief, lower health care costs, improved roads and bridges, and strong schools,’ he said in a statement.”

But by 2018, Republicans’ solidarity with Minnesota families had vanished, and Speaker Daudt made funding a pay raise for legislators the first priority for the Legislature. Then, instead of delivering on priorities for Minnesota families, Republicans didn’t get the job done.

The point isn’t whether legislative pay should have been increased or not. The point is that House Republicans were dead-set on ensuring that their own paychecks would be funded while little else was accomplished.

Minnesotans deserve better than politics as usual, and the point of the nonpartisan Legislative Salary Council was just that. But Republicans chose to hold hostage the vast majority of business before the Legislature this year to see what they could get for themselves and their special-interest friends. And Minnesotans, regardless of whether or not they voted to approve a constitutional amendment on legislative pay, deserve better than that.

Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, is minority leader in the Minnesota House.