- Associated Press - Thursday, March 16, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Minnesota’s Republican House speaker moved Thursday to block lawmakers’ first pay raise in nearly two decades, a $14,000 increase recently approved by an independent body, prompting constitutional questions about the Legislature intervening to stop a constitutionally mandated pay increase.

Minnesota voters set the 45 percent raise in motion in November, overwhelmingly approving a constitutional amendment that removed lawmakers’ ability to set their own pay and handing that power to a new Legislative Salary Council. Late last week, the council approved an increase from the current $31,000 annual salary to $45,000 starting in July - the Legislature’s first pay raise since 1999.

But lawmakers still need to authorize the extra money to cover those larger paychecks, roughly $2.8 million in total. Speaker Kurt Daudt made clear in a Thursday letter that the House would not provide that funding, and directed House payroll staff not to issue the raises. He drew a clear line between voters’ approval of the constitutional amendment shifting responsibility over setting salaries and the scope of the raises that the council eventually approved.

“For us to accept that pay when others are not getting that kind of pay increase really would be wrong,” Daudt told reporters.

Daudt said handing off the power to set pay was wrong. The speaker said a possible campaign for governor in 2018 was not a factor in his decision.

The passage of the amendment in November put the authority to set salaries directly in Minnesota’s constitution. Daudt argued that because the Legislature has the sole power to appropriate state funding, the independent council has no authority to issue a pay increase until the Legislature provides the money.

But others disagree. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a fellow Republican, said Thursday it’s clear that the larger salaries are now mandated by the constitution, and the Legislature has no say in the matter.

“I don’t know how you can possibly get around that,” Gazelka said. “We’re not going to fight it.”

Though Daudt said the House also wouldn’t authorize the money for raises in the Senate, it’s unclear whether that would also block the raises from going to all 67 state senators.

Sen. Kent Eken led the effort in 2014 to put the question to voters. The Twin Valley Democrat said it’s a shame that the debate over pay was being pulled back into the Legislature after Minnesota residents voted to remove it.

“We should be focusing on our constituents, not on our pay. That was the whole point of the constitutional amendment,” Eken said. “It’s going to be in the hands of the courts to decide on this issue.”

Daudt said he sought legal advice before issuing the order to block pay raises, and that advice was split on whether the action was constitutional or not.

“Will we end up in court? I don’t know,” he said.

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