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Public service, or patronage?

David Strom//February 13, 2015

Public service, or patronage?

David Strom//February 13, 2015

I don’t know what the right salary is for a commissioner or the chair of the Metropolitan Council, but I do know that Gov. Mark Dayton’s explanations for unilaterally bumping those salaries up stinks.

Last session, when the DFL controlled the House, the Senate and the governor’s office, they changed the way salaries for top state employees were set. Until this year, salaries were determined by the Legislature, with the general rule being that such employees would be paid less than the governor.

It’s a process that makes sense: The Legislature has always held the power of the purse, and jobs appointed by the governor aren’t supposed to be prizes to hand out. One of the lessons we learned in our civics classes (do we still have those?) is that political patronage is a form of corruption.

Gov. Dayton and the DFL apparently like political patronage, and they passed a law to give the governor the power to unilaterally increase salaries for political appointees. And when he chose to use it, he didn’t take half measures. He raised the salary of the new chair of the Metropolitan Council by a whopping 150%, from $58,000 to $145,000.

And that new chair? He is none other than Adam Duininck, former treasurer of Win Minnesota PAC—a group that spent over $1 million last year to re-elect Mark Dayton and DFLers.

If that doesn’t smell of a direct payoff, then I don’t know.

Other Dayton appointees didn’t make out quite so well, but their pay bumps were pretty substantial. Who wouldn’t want a $25-35K pay increase?

Now Gov. Dayton justifies his generosity with our tax dollars with an old saw that is so rusty that it wouldn’t cut whipped butter: He needed to make salaries for his appointees more competitive with private sector salaries to hire and retain the best talent.

That sure sounds good, but it is false on its face. After all, unless Dayton is looking to fire his current crop of commissioners due to their manifest incompetence (I could suggest a couple that I wouldn’t mind see out the door), he is just paying the same people to do the same job a whole lot more money. And he hasn’t had any particular trouble retaining commissioners. The apparently sorely underpaid chair of the Metropolitan Council served out a full four-year term despite her apparent sacrifice.

Dayton’s argument gets weaker still, as it ignores the obvious future economic value of having held a top political post. Most leave public service to have much more lucrative positions than they would ever have gotten without having been so near the seat of power. It’s like Hillary Clinton complaining she was “dead broke” after an eight-year stay in the White House. She’s done OK, as have the people around her. Dayton’s commissioners will do just fine as well.

Anybody who has witnessed at close hand a transition would laugh at the idea that finding candidates for positions is somehow difficult. The problem is the opposite: Too many people want the job and would pull any lever to get it.

Now I am not one of those conservatives who believe that public servants should have to beg for rice and wear hair shirts. Working for the government shouldn’t be a volunteer position. It is fair that competent people be paid reasonably for their service. And the Legislature is aware of that too, and has done a pretty good job of striking the balance between protecting the public purse and ensuring that political appointees are well compensated. Commissioners were making about $120,000 a year, which isn’t chump change.

But chumps are just what Gov. Dayton thinks we the taxpayers are. By trotting out the excuse that he simply had to raise those salaries by up to 150% in order to hire and retain good people he has shown that he thinks we are stupid.

You don’t hire a guy who just directed the spending of more than a million dollars to get you elected and expect smart people to buy that there is no connection between the money he spent on your behalf and the hugely inflated salary you are giving him now. The salary increase Dayton insisted is necessary for that position will amount to an extra $344,000 over Dayton’s term over the base salary.

Not bad for a political operative. Raise and spend other people’s money on behalf of the governor, and get rewarded with a job that will pay him $600,000.

It’s not that hard to find good help, if you dangle a big enough reward in front of them.

David Strom is Principal at Think Write Do, a public affairs and communications consulting firm. He specializes in helping people define and craft their messages.

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