Election 2016

What the Constitutional Amendment on the Ballot Means

By Melissa Turtinen | November 1, 2016 | SOURCE: GoNews

A sample ballot of the constitutional amendment. Image: MN Secretary of State

A sample ballot of the constitutional amendment. Image: MN Secretary of State

When you head to the polls, you’ll notice there’s a proposed constitutional amendment question on the ballot.

It’s about legislators’ power to set their own salaries, and whether that should be taken away. If the amendment passes, it’ll be a major change to how lawmakers’ pay is decided – and could mean they get a raise for the first time in nearly a decade.

Here’s a breakdown of what all this means.

How will the amendment change things?

The proposed amendment reads, in part: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to remove state lawmakers’ power to set their own salaries, and instead establish an independent, citizens-only council to prescribe salaries of lawmakers?” (For the full text of the proposed amendment, click here.)

Currently, under the state constitution, state senators and representatives determine their own salary – kind of. Whatever salary they decide on must pass the Legislature and get signed off by the governor. And if all that happens, it doesn’t go into effect until after the next House election (which happen every two years).

This amendment would change all that. Instead, a 16-member council would decide legislator pay every two years. This document gives all the nitty-gritty details, but essentially the governor and the Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice would pick the council members, with appointees split evenly between the two major political parties. (Note: council members can’t include past or present legislators, their spouses, lobbyists, judges or state employees.)

How does it pass?

You can vote yes or no on the amendment. But know that if you leave the question blank, it counts as if you voted no.

To pass, more than half of the total ballots cast in the election must be yes votes (technically 50 percent plus one must be in favor of the amendment), according to the Office of the Secretary of State.

Why should I care?

Lawmakers currently make a base salary of $31,141 (plus any expenses they get reimbursed for), the National Conference of State Legislators 2016 survey shows.

And that salary hasn’t changed since 1999, MPR News noted, despite the salaries of other state employees going up (legislative aids now make more than their bosses – although their position is considered year-round, unlike legislators), MinnPost explains.

Even though the constitution says lawmakers set their own salaries, they’ve avoided giving themselves a raise because, well, it’s a little awkward. Plus, raising their own pay can be a political firestorm, the National Conference of State Legislators notes.

So if this amendment passes, it could mean lawmakers get their first raise in years. (That is, if the council agrees to a raise.)

This is where the argument of for and against comes in. Those who support it say it’s a conflict of interest to have lawmakers decide how much they should get paid.

People who are against it say the amendment could give lawmakers a raise without them having to vote on it and justify why they deserve more money.

Why am I just learning about this now?

Because no major groups have really come out in support or in opposition of of the ballot question, unlike previous constitutional amendment proposals.

The Office of the Secretary of State is required to post links of organizations or individuals that have an opinion on any ballot question, so long as they submit it to the office.

Only two groups have done so: The Libertarian Party of Minnesota and a website called Voter’s Point of View – they both oppose the amendment.

What do other states do?

About 20 states have an independent council that decides legislator pay, according to MinnPost. Three of the states have councils that pay legislators more than what Minnesota lawmakers make, the Pioneer Press says. That includes California – legislators there make the most in the nation – a salary of more than $100,000, a 2016 survey by the National Conference of State Legislators shows.

Overall, lawmakers in most states don’t make very much. Research done in 2014 found the median base pay for a lawmaker was $20,833, FiveThirtyEight said in a story that tries to tackle how much lawmakers should get paid.

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