The very fact that state lawmakers even had the choice of getting paychecks for work done during the 20-day shutdown this summer is enough to make you want to gag. The fact that nearly all legislators who took the retroactive pay plan to donate it or give it back to the state is a sign that lawmakers know that, as a group, they let the state down.
Giving it back in some way should be a no-brainer for the 18 legislators who accepted the back pay. It at least tells the voters and state employees laid off during the shutdown: "You're right, we dropped the ball this year, but we're really good people."
Lawmakers were entitled to salaries when government closed for much of July, but about a third of the Legislature's 201 members told the payroll offices they didn't want to be paid. The Legislature did continue operating during the shutdown, even though the Capitol and State Office Building were closed to the public.
For any legislator who kept the money, sleeping at night just got tougher.
But we also have to blame the state as a whole for running a screwed-up system that needs fixing.
What message does it send to hard-working, paycheck-to-paycheck voters, already fed up with a Legislature that failed to get its work done on time, that legislators even had the option of getting paid during the shutdown? It's a sure bet that most constituents, upon hearing the news that elected officials had the chance to cash in, let out the kind of grunting wails that would impress even the most aggressive women's pro tennis player.
When Joe and Jane Public miss a deadline or drops the ball by not getting his or her work done on time there are repercussions - at the least a slap on the wrist, at the most they get canned. But not state lawmakers (at least those who manage to get reelected in 2012) and that's wrong.
After the shutdown ended, 18 House members took the option of receiving back pay. Another 32 state representatives followed through on a shutdown pay cut averaging $1,600 - the amount they would have earned during the shutdown. The remaining 84 House members were paid normally during the shutdown. Fourteen state senators declined their salaries during the shutdown, and none requested retroactive pay.
It's true our policymakers had a thankless job this year - during economic times like these and facing a bloated budget deficit, the likes of which the state has never seen, they were generally in a lose-lose situation in the eyes of the voters. But balancing the budget is still part of their job; it didn't get done on time and ended up costing thousands upon thousands of public employees their jobs, if only for a few weeks, and for a time denying Minnesotans access to some important public services. All they got out of the shutdown was stress, heartbreak and unemployment - about 50 percent or less of their normal pay for state and union workers. How about back pay for them? Nope, not even eligible. No one ever promised us a rose garden before the session started, but that's a pretty tough way to go through a good chunk of summer.
We don't know what all of the House representatives who accepted retroactive pay will do with their money, but I would encourage them to get it off their hands - and their conscience - like Rep. Chris Swedzinski of Ghent and Sen. Gary Dahms are doing. Swedzinski, Ghent's freshman lawmaker, is donating his pay to various local groups, although when asked by the Independent he wouldn't say where the money is going. Dahms, who didn't get the necessary paperwork done on time to have his pay withheld, donated his gross amount - $1,761 - to Service Enterprises Inc., which has offices in Marshall and Redwood Falls.
No single, individual representative or senator is responsible for the state shutdown, not even the ones who did nothing more than continually point fingers at the other side. They all share in the guilt. But they can all make some lemonade out of this summer's lemon of a session by doing something good with the money they "earned" during the shutdown. They can invest it - not in gold, but in their community, in their school. The shutdown left our lawmakers with PR scars wider than any bandage can cover, and putting the money to good use would go a long way toward closing the wounds.
It's tough to see how keeping it is even possible, unless they never use a mirror. They can keep telling themselves it's their money and they deserve it, and, technically, they'd be right - at least on one account. It is their money, but they hardly deserve it. This isn't like finding a $100 bill on the ground somewhere with no one around and taking it, this is more like watching it fall out of someone's pocket and covering it up with your foot, and the state shouldn't allow any lawmaker the option of sneaking away with it.
Lawmakers, ask yourself: Did you earn this money? For those who say yes and are taking the money and running, well, that's their choice. It's just not a good one.