Minnesota State Constitution

Minnesota State Constitution

There are two pension related items that may be in play for a special session budget deal. One is the consolidation of the Minneapolis Police and Fire closed pension funds into state-run PERA (see our coverage here) which we have testified against in the pension commission. The other is a special annuity bill that we have also testified about, noting that the state constitution would appear to expressly prohibit the bill.

You may recall that Mike Struck, a nine-year employee for MnDOT, was tragically killed this spring while trying to clear a culvert in the flooded Seven Mile Creek between Mankato and St. Peter. Fox News 9 reported that Mr. Struck was a volunteer fireman, local hero and just the kind of guy you want on your team. He was only 39 years old and left behind a young wife and two children, ages 4 and 6.

Following his death, Rep. Morrow and Sen. Sheran from his district sponsored legislation as part of the annual omnibus pension bill, which would create a special annuity for his widow. State law does not provide for a special annuity (that increases the widow’s pension she will get at no cost to her) when a state worker is killed in the line of duty, though of course there are survivor benefits from workers comp and social security, in addition to insurance proceeds.

According to the information I heard at a Senate committee hearing, this annuity/pension, if it becomes law, would be paid to his widow in 28 years, and in its last iteration would equal about $20, 000 a year. It would be funded now with a $38,000 payment from the current MnDot operations fund and placed in the state’s MSRS pension fund for investing. Mr. Struck’s wife is eligible for a widow’s pension from MSRS that equals about $191 a month but sponsors of the bill felt that this income and the other benefits were not sufficient, so they offered this bill to the pension commission this spring. It passed there but was removed from the pension bill by a Senate committee on a motion by Sen. Julianne Ortman (see below); the fate of the pension bill this session remains unknown at this time.

One can certainly understand the desire to help this young family, and there is a tradition to do so here in Minnesota (we heard testimony that there have been similar bills each year for the last 50 years designed to help an individual or their family).

You have to ask yourself, if this is good policy, then why is there not a general law that provides special benefits for state workers killed on the job? I have asked several people, and they tell me that such a law would never pass because state and federal laws already provide for a killed worker (workers comp, social security). Again, this is in addition to whatever life insurance the person had.

So why do we have this bill and similar, though less dramatic ones, each year? Because state lawmakers love to rise to the aid and rescue of their constituents; it is a natural human emotion. For most politicians, it is an irresistible opportunity to use their position to help someone in a big way and it makes for great politics. These bills are referred to quite openly as part of legislator’s “constituent work”.

The problem is this money is not theirs to give and the Minnesota Constitution makes that clear. Col. David Crockett, while serving as a U.S. Congressman from Tennessee, is credited with a great speech entitled “Not Yours to Give on the floor of Congress about using tax dollars in support of charity for individuals in need. (As an aside, as with many things in his storied career, it is not clear he actually gave this speech, just as it is not clear he ever grinned a bear up a tree. The speech is nonetheless, a great and timely read.)

The Minnesota Constitution (Article XII, Section 1) supports this view of limited government power by expressly forbidding legislation that grants to any individual a special or exclusive privilege or authorizing public taxation for a private purpose. You can see why this is good public policy; it prohibits abuse of the taxing power for political favors just as we have prohibitions against laws that aim to punish specific individuals.

Legislators have gotten around this troublesome constitutional limitation on their power through clever drafting. According to the staff at Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement (LCPR), “The bills are framed as general legislation defining a general class with several requirements that happen to limit their application to one or a small number of likely individuals.”

The good news is that we have some principled lawmakers who take the oath of office seriously. It comes from their understanding that government must be limited in its scope and reach. It requires lawmakers to make tough decisions that may not be politically popular.

Sen. Julianne Ortman and Sen. Mike Parry both stood up to the pressure to just slide this bill through, business as usual. Ortman told her colleagues at the State Government Innovation committee meeting (on Saturday, May 21) that this was not good public policy and moved to have it deleted from the pension bill. Senator Parry and other GOP colleagues including Senators Ted Daley and Ted Lillie agreed with Ortman. Chair Parry reminded the committee that the Minnesota Constitution prohibited the bill and that their oath of office prohibited this special legislation.

Score one for limited, constitutional state government.

John LaPlante here, with an addendum: The idea of the “separation of church and state,” though contentious in its application, points us to an important truth that is worth remembering when tragedies such as this strike: The institutions with which we are all familiar have important but distinct roles. If you want to learn about God, pick a religious body of your choice. Don’t, however, go to government. If you think your children are endangered by people driving too quickly on your road, talk to the police, not the parson.

Likewise, if you wish to extend help to a specific person, do so through by helping voluntary associations such as the Salvation Army–or better yet, directly approach that person. Don’t use the powers of government, which is an instrument of justice and uniform treatment, not of mercy and special treatment. Forgetting this distinction is the source of many bad laws.