Should legislators repeal the $192,000 limit on local government salaries?

The cost, size and scope of Minnesota state and local government continues to balloon year after year, with no end in sight. Indeed, DFL legislators stand ready to further expand their reach into Minnesotans’ wallets with a nearly $8 billion state budget surplus/taxpayer overcharge on the agenda of the 2022 state legislature.

One reason why? Look no further than the six-figure salaries paid out to higher level city and county government employees. Currently, local government staff salaries are capped at 110 percent of the governor’s take-home pay, $192,144. But the League of Minnesota Cities, a lobbying organization that collects hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in annual fees to represent the state’s cities, leads a charge aimed at convincing lawmakers to get rid of the salary cap once and for all. Southwest News Media positioned it this way.

Amid a tight labor market and changing industry dynamics heralded by the pandemic, local city and county associations are continuing efforts to repeal a Minnesota law capping the salary of local government employees. 

“We have never been able to find another state that has any kind of limit like this,” said Gary Carlson, the intergovernmental relations director with the League of Minnesota Cities.

Never mind that $192,144 works out to three and a half times the $57,000 annual salary Minnesotans earn on average. Or that dozens of local governments have already gotten exemptions in recent years that allow them to blow past the salary cap anyway, due to a waiver from the Minnesota Management and Budget Office.

City managers in Burnsville, Blaine and Maple Grove are the latest to join a list of over 80 public employees authorized to earn salaries above the cap through a state program that allows exemptions to the law based on local factors. 

However, Carlson and other critics of the law argue the salary cap hinders local government employer’s efforts towards pay equity, recruitment and the ability to offer salary adjustments for increased responsibilities. A bill introduced in the Minnesota House last year aimed to repeal the law entirely.

In fact, the salary cap has been watered down significantly in past legislative sessions, with loopholes carved out for powerful interest groups.

Over the decades, changes to the law have increased the salary limit and eliminated restrictions for some government employees.

The current law exempts school districts and does not restrict the pay of elected officials, such as county attorneys and sheriffs. 

Still, Carlson said governments face increasing competition from non-profits, out-of-state entities and private sector employers who can promise higher pay and bigger steps up the ladder to top-performing employees. 

Legislation to eliminate the salary cap was introduced in the 2021 session. Fortunately, an outright repeal of the salary cap remains a tough sell with more legislators than not.

The repeal efforts sparked opposition from State Rep. Bjorn Olson, R-Elmore, during a hearing by the House Local Government Committee in February. 

“I guess I would just question the logic behind why a city administrator, for example, should warrant pay that exceeds an executive who is responsible for 5.64 million Minnesotans?” Olson questioned. “I think if we don’t worry about this a little bit we’ll allow cities to completely explode their pay to city administrators.”