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My involvement with the Minnesota Legislative Salary Council

Advocacy

Jim Lindell, CPA, CGMA, CSP | Footnote

Editor's note: Updated May 1, 2017

On Nov. 6, 2016, voters approved the creation of the Legislative Salary Council, a citizen committee tasked with setting the annual salary for Minnesota lawmakers. In March 2017, the Council recommended that the 201 members of the Minnesota Legislature receive an increase in base salary from $31,141 to $45,000 annually. The last time the base salary was increased was 1999. 

MNCPA member Chas McElroy was appointed to the 16-member council by Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea. The following is a reflection on his experience and the Council's recent work.

In late 2016, after the election-day dust had settled, I read a newspaper article about a constitutional amendment passing that authorized the formation of a Legislative Salary Council. There wasn't much publicity about the issue before the election, and some argued the wording on the ballot was not clear. Nevertheless, the Legislative Salary Council was approved with 76 percent of the vote and would be used to determine legislators' salaries every two years as part of the Legislature's biennial budget process.

How did I go from reading about this new Council in the newspaper to actually serving on it? My story goes back before the election -- back to my years serving on the MNCPA Legislative Issues Committee.

Early government relations involvement

I first became involved with the Legislative Issues Committee because of my interest in a tort reform issue the MNCPA was backing at the Legislature. Working with our contract lobbyist and other MNCPA members, we educated lawmakers about the current law and why it unfairly impacted CPAs.

I learned a tremendous amount about the legislative process from that experience. Key things I took away:

  • It takes time and patience to advance issues in the Legislature. Think of the Twins and Viking stadium issues -- those took roughly 10 years each. Our tort reform issue took about the same amount of time until the MNCPA was successful.
  • Legislators work extremely hard. There are many demands on their time in and out of legislative sessions. They have numerous issues coming at them -- large and small -- and there are only so many hours in the day for them to get educated on them.
  • It helps to donate in the political process. No, money does not buy votes. Though, as legislators manage the little time they have, they will prioritize constituents, individuals that take the time to get to know them, and those who contribute money to the process. Contributing money is an indication of support and involvement.

As simple and logical as the above items are, I was ignorant of them until I spent some time at the Capitol. In short, I gained a tremendous amount of respect for the people involved and the process they go through to serve the residents of Minnesota.

Serving on the Legislative Salary Council

It was this experience and respect for the legislative process that inspired me to apply to be a member of Minnesota's first Legislative Salary Council. I submitted my name and was fortunate to be selected, becoming one of 16 Minnesotans appointed to the Council.

The Council meets from January through March every other year. Our first meeting was Jan. 11, 2017, and we held six meetings until issuing our final report on March 21. During this period, Council members are prohibited from having any contact with legislators.

The Council consists of members with diverse backgrounds. We didn't spend a lot of time getting to know each other. All I knew was that eight members were appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and eight by the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Two members were selected from each of Minnesota's eight congressional districts. Half were democrats, half were republicans. I was the only CPA on the Salary Council.

Our first three meetings were primarily educational. Tom Stinson, former Minnesota chief economist, chaired the Council and provided a wealth of information. Equally valuable was testimony from seven former Minnesota legislators on their experience serving in the Legislature and their views on the salary issue.

The meetings were open to the public and the press. Some residents provided testimony on their views while a few others wrote letters. While we were aware there would be scrutiny and criticism on our decision, this didn't affect our discussion.

Final decisions

At the fourth and fifth meetings, the Salary Council got down to talking numbers for our base salary determination. We didn't always agree, but the salary range each of us felt was appropriate was fairly close. The final determination of a $45,000 base salary came together quickly. I attribute that to all the background information we received and discussion up to that point.

The issue that caused the most conversation was per diem. Per diem is different for members of the House and Senate, and is determined separately by each body. The taxability of the per diem is different for legislators living more than 50 miles from the Capitol in St. Paul. Some legislators apply for the full per diem while others take only a partial amount. Per diem has been referred to as a "back-door salary" by some of the press.

In the final report, the Council recommended eliminating per diem and having the legislative salaries be more transparent.

It all adds up

I found my experience on the Legislative Salary Council very interesting and rewarding. I wouldn't have pursued this opportunity had it not been for my years of involvement in the MNCPA. As CPAs, we all have something to contribute. It can be getting to know your legislator, writing a letter on an issue you care about or contributing to a candidate or the MNCPA PAC.

I encourage you to get involved in the MNCPA's legislative efforts in some way. Let Geno Fragnito, our government relations director, know if you have an issue, question or interest in participating. If you don't have much time, make it an annual habit to contribute to the MNCPA PAC. The participation we individually make all adds up!

Learn more: The Legislative Salary Council's full report can be accessed at www.lcc.leg.mn/legsalarycouncil.

Have questions?

Do you have questions or want to get involved in the legislative process? Contact Geno Fragnito at 952-885-5550 or gfragnito@mncpa.org.