If Republicans were to gain the state House majority in November, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg was poised to become one of the Capitol’s most powerful players. Instead, she’s trading in 16 years of legislative influence to run for a seat on the Dakota County Board, which offers a lower profile but a fatter paycheck.
“Let’s say we’re back in the majority,” said Holberg, of Lakeville, reflecting on a top goal of the state GOP in 2014. “I painted the most perfect picture of what that could mean for me, and I still couldn’t get excited about coming back. It became really clear to me it was time to leave.”
It’s the Minnesota Legislature’s version of brain drain. A number of high-profile and influential legislators are trading the lofty policy debates, high-stakes budgeting, demanding schedule and chaotic politics of the Legislature for the comparatively staid and decidedly unglamorous world of county government.
In addition to Holberg, Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, will run for a commissioner’s seat in Scott County. Five former legislators also are running for county board posts — four DFLers and one Republican in both the metro area and greater Minnesota. Former legislators fill seats on a number of other county boards including in Ramsey, Carver and Olmsted counties.
“The county board pays about twice as much but it’s about half as much work,” said Beard, a 12-year House veteran from Shakopee. He quickly added: “That’s tongue firmly in cheek.”
The county jobs might look less powerful and prestigious, more low profile. But a handful of boards governing the state’s largest counties dangle paychecks that dwarf those of the average legislator.
Rank-and-file Minnesota legislators earn $31,141 a year, plus an expense per diem, for a job that’s officially considered part time. But for up to half the year, the legislative calendar demands long hours, late nights, weekend meetings and frequent round trips between St. Paul and home. Political tensions can run high, media scrutiny can be intense and the fundraising for the next election endless.
Meanwhile, commissioners in 15 of Minnesota’s 87 counties earn more than their legislative counterparts — a few up to double and in Hennepin County near triple. With the higher pay comes regularly scheduled meetings, smaller budgets, more clear-cut issues and less partisan rhetoric.
Legislative retirement plan?
“There’s something to be said for downshifting,” said Chris Gerlach, a former Republican state senator from Apple Valley who now earns $70,000 a year as a Dakota County commissioner. “I decided 14 years in the Legislature was enough, and I couldn’t afford it anymore.”
Hennepin County has the highest-paid commissioners in the state, with a base salary of about $100,000. Tellingly, four of its seven commissioners are former legislators; political insiders jokingly refer to the Hennepin County Board as the Legislature’s retirement plan.
“That part of it is very agreeable to me,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins, a former DFL senator from Minneapolis. Higgins said her Senate pay was so low she had to take a part-time job to make ends meet.
Now, she said, she is able to devote herself fully to her elected job. Working on county issues brings Higgins closer to the everyday lives of her constituents, but she admitted to occasionally missing milestone days at the Capitol.
“I wish I could have been there for the gay marriage vote,” Higgins said.
State lawmaker pay in Minnesota is considerably less than in nearby states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana but quite a bit higher than in the Dakotas or Iowa. Minnesota legislators last got a pay raise in 1998, and the rate can be increased only by a vote of the Legislature — a politically risky proposition. Legislators in both parties say that low pay and a demanding schedule that takes time from careers and families make recruitment and retainment increasingly difficult.
In 2016 Minnesotans will vote on a constitutional amendment to shift pay-raise authority away from legislators to an appointed council.
Most county commissioners vote on their own pay but typically tie it to increases for their county’s employees, which provides them with regular boosts. According to the Association of Minnesota Counties, commissioners in the seven-county metro area earn between $43,000 and $100,000 per year, plus expense reimbursement.
Some Hennepin County commissioners have turned down recent pay raises.
“I feel like we are paid quite handsomely, and I didn’t think I should take an extra five or six percent,” said Commissioner Jeff Johnson, a Republican candidate for governor and a former state representative whose county salary is slightly above $97,000.
Shifting from one level of government to another is common in the political class. But the move from the Statehouse to courthouses has been notable in recent years.
A need for legislative vets
If Republicans win the majority, Beard was a good bet for the House’s transportation budget chairman in a session where highway and transit spending is expected to be a hot issue. Holberg might have risen even higher: An avowed fiscal and social conservative, she nonetheless garnered wide respect from fellow Republicans and DFLers for a collaborative style and deep policy knowledge. She “exemplifies what’s best about this place,” DFL Speaker Paul Thissen said in May.
But Holberg said the prospect of once again chairing the House’s powerful Ways and Means Committee or even a potential run for House speaker has diminished appeal. She and Beard said they decided to retire from the Legislature before they decided to run for county board. In addition to the long hours, many former lawmakers say the partisan atmosphere at the Capitol is draining after prolonged exposure.
“In the Legislature, you’ve basically got two teams,” Gerlach said. “Every day you show up to work at the Capitol, half of the institution is trying to make you look bad and get you fired.”
Today, Gerlach worries about libraries and county roads, delivery of government benefits and solid waste management. Some legislators who flirted with county board runs said that personal demands aside, they still value life at the Capitol.
“The best reason to run for county board is insomnia relief,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who briefly considered a Dakota County Board bid in 2012.
Tom Rukavina, a fiery Iron Range DFLer, stepped down in 2012 after a quarter-century in the House. He is now running for the St. Louis County Board. If elected, he’ll nearly double his former legislative salary and will keep his legislative pension.
Rukavina joked that “I got tired of driving back and forth to the Cities.” On a more serious note, Rukavina said the institution suffers when it loses veterans like Holberg and Beard.
“You need people in there with historical perspective and institutional memory, and I say that in relation to both parties,” Rukavina said. Veteran legislators are a needed counterweight to powerful, long-serving state agency bureaucrats who are more insulated from political pressure, he said.
“When people say, ‘You’ve been in government too long,’ I ask them: ‘Who do you want doing your brain surgery? A doctor with 20 years of experience or some kid out of medical school?’ ” Rukavina said. “Do you want novices in there who can’t find the bathroom? Or do you want people who know what’s going on?”
Patrick Condon • 651-925-5049