Voters in November may be surprised to see on the ballot a “small, humble,” amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would take away legislators’ ability to set their own pay and give it to an independent commission.

Authored by Minnesota Sen. Kent Eken, the amendment is necessary for conflict-of-interest reasons, he said. Lawmakers should not set their own pay.

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“We are removing any chance of a conflict of interest,” Eken said in Detroit Lakes Wednesday.

“It’s not something we should be focusing on – we should be working for our constituents, not focusing on our pay,” he said.

Minnesota legislators earn about $31,000 a year, which hasn’t changed in 17 years.

Nationwide, lawmaker pay is all over the board, depending on whether they are considered full-time or part-time, among other factors.

Lawmakers in neighboring Wisconsin, for example, earn $51,000 a year. In North Dakota they get no salary at all, only per diem.

You can see pay for all 50 states on the National Conference of State Legislators website.

If the Minnesota constitutional amendment passes on Nov. 8, authority for lawmaker pay will shift to a 16-member commission, half affiliated with the DFL and half with the Republicans, with eight members appointed by the governor and eight by the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Eken said.

The commission will only decide lawmaker pay, not per diem, insurance or other benefits.

No current or former lawmakers, spouses, staff, lobbyists, judges, governors or constitutional officers will be allowed to sit on the panel, Eken said.

“We went to the nth degree to make sure we are removing any chance of conflict of interest.”

Other states, including Idaho and California, already use a similar system, Eken said. Generally lawmaker pay has increased, but California twice cut its full-time legislators’ pay during tough budget years, Eken said.

A constitutional amendment is necessary because the state constitution gives the Minnesota Legislature power over all appropriations, including lawmaker pay.

The bill, which Eken said he has offered for the past 10 years, finally passed last session with bipartisan support.

The new commission would be split evenly between Democrats and Republicans because “we want people who are politically engaged,” he said, “and who understand the process and how things work.”

The panel will meet annually to study the time commitment and workload faced by lawmakers, compare salaries with lawmakers of other states and similar professions, and take into account other forms of lawmaker compensation, such as insurance and per diem rates – though it will only be responsible for setting legislative salaries.

In the past, legislative fights over pay diverted way too much attention from serious issues that needed to be tackled by lawmakers, Eken said.

“It gets the politics out of pay and the pay out of politics,” he added. “No one goes into the Legislature for the pay, but we don’t want people not going into it because of the pay, or leaving it because they have to … there has to be a balance.”

Minnesota legislators are considered part-time state employees, although the workload is now closer to full-time, Eken said.

“I can tell you this job really does take up more time than it ever used to,” he said. “There’s lots more to do outside the session than there used to be. It takes a bigger (time) commitment than it used to – my dad served in the 1970s, and it was quite different then.”