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Lawsuit claims legislators must be paid

Lawmakers must be paid, a lawsuit filed Monday says.

The suit, brought on behalf of Minnesota citizens, says the combination of Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt refusing a pay raise for his members and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton vetoing funding for the Legislature creates a constitutional crisis.

The state constitution says, "if you are a legislator, you'll get paid," said attorney Erick Kaardal. Kaardal is representing a group of citizens in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed in Ramsey County District Court, claims it is unconstitutional that Daudt ordered staff not to obey the constitutionally empowered legislative salary council's prescribed $45,000-a-year pay for lawmakers. The suit further claims that, despite Dayton's decision last month to veto all funding for the Legislature for the next two years, legislators must be paid.

The suit, which is separate from the lawsuit lawmakers are expected to file challenging Dayton's veto, asks the court to order the state to pay lawmakers $45,000 annual salaries starting July 1.

Kaardal, who has made a career of challenging governments, often on constitutional grounds, said that even if there is no approved appropriation for the rest of the legislative business, the constitution demands legislators get their income.

Leaders of the House and Senate declined comment on the lawsuit, as did Dayton's office.

Even before Dayton line-item vetoed $130 million from the Legislature's budget, the fate of the salary increases was a muddle.

After the council prescribed a 45 percent pay bump for lawmakers in March, Daudt, who lives in rural Isanti County, said House members would continue to get $31,000 a year — the same amount legislators have received for the past two decades. He has not changed that position, according to a spokeswoman.

Asked last month on TPT's "Almanac" if that position was legal, Daudt said, " You know, I don't know."

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican from near Nisswa, has long maintained that the Legislature has no choice but to pay the full $45,000. Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment giving power of lawmaker pay to an independent council last year and that council sets the pay from here on out, the thinking goes.

The split position among Republican leaders is one of the reasons that even before Dayton's veto, the Legislature did not increase its budget allocation to account for the extra $1 million or more the House and Senate would need for the pay increase. Both Gazelka and Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the result would be that the Legislature would have to reduce resources in other areas in order to fund the increased legislator salaries.

The pay issue became even trickier once Dayton nixed funding for the Legislature.

Both the House and the Senate have reserve funds, known as carry-forward funds, available outside of Dayton's veto ability. The House has about $8 million in that account, projected to rise to about $10 million soon. The Senate is sitting on about $4 million.

It is not clear if the legislative bodies must fund lawmakers' salaries first out of those funds, before they spend a dime on anything else.