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Bill rescinding commissioner raises advances

Mike Mullen//February 18, 2015

Bill rescinding commissioner raises advances

Mike Mullen//February 18, 2015

Roz Peterson
Roz Peterson

Once, not so long ago, the matter of setting Cabinet salaries was only occasionally in the consciousness of legislators. This became apparent on Tuesday, as House members struggled to recall details of how authority came to be handed over entirely to the governor, and just what the practice had been prior to that.

Memories have faded, it seems, since the 2013 session, when the state government funding budget seemed a bit ho-hum in the course of a session that also saw large tax increases, the creation of MNsure and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Rest assured: After this year, everyone’s going to remember what happens.

A Republican-backed bill to rescind the governor’s power to unilaterally change salaries for commissioners and other high-ranking officials advanced out of the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee Tuesday, and even gained some DFL support along the way.

The bill, authored by freshman Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, is expected to be fast-tracked through the lower chamber in the wake of Gov. Mark Dayton’s recent decision to boost pay by 30 percent for commissioners, while also more than doubling the pay for the Metropolitan Council chair.

In fact, legislators went a step further, adding an amendment that would retroactively take back additional pay that came as a result of the new salaries.

In discussion of the topic the previous week, Dayton said it would be reasonable to revisit the question of authority to set salaries, but said any attempt to take back money already doled out — the new wage figures went into effect in January — would be “unacceptable.”

Peterson explained that her bill would give the Legislature, and the public, the chance to hear Dayton’s case for why he wants to pay more.

“If the governor would like to defend those increases, that certainly can be done,” Peterson said.

So far, Dayton has done so only in press conferences, leaving the committee process to Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans. Frans was not on hand for Tuesday’s hearing, which meant argument in favor of the new salary levels was left to a handful of DFL legislators.

Rep. Mike Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, recalled that the salary provision had actually been a firm position of the Senate, not the House, when the two sides convened a conference committee on the government funding bill. That budget came with immediate increases for Cabinet members, while also allowing Dayton to raise their pay to 133 percent of his own salary of $120,000.  Previously, those salaries had been capped at 95 percent of the governor’s pay.

Despite the fact that the House had not supported the statutory change in 2013, Nelson said he saw Peterson’s bill as an attempt to “micromanage” the government.

Committee chair Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, rebutted that sentiment, saying, “It is absolutely the job of the Legislature, in my opinion, to micromanage the executive branch.”

Under the terms of Peterson’s bill, the governor would merely recommend wage levels to the Legislative Coordinating Commission (LCC), which would then act to approve or reject the new figures.

Rep. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, said Dayton had been acting to bring salaries in line with inflation after more than a decade with no increases.

“Because we’re taken aback by a 12-year leap does not mean that our salaries get to run the show here,” Laine said.

Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, countered that most of the commissioners had already been making upwards of $100,000. While this was admittedly less than those agency heads could receive for similar work in the private sector, Albright observed that nearly all of Dayton’s Cabinet members had returned for a second term of service.

“There must be a compelling reason, other than compensation, why they stayed,” Albright said.

The measure to claw-back from salary levels was adopted on a voice vote, and the bill passed out of committee on an 11-4 roll call. DFL Reps. Laurie Halverson (Eagan) and Yvonne Selcer (Minnetonka), who both represent suburban swing districts, joined the panel’s Republicans to vote in the affirmative. The vote sent the bill to the general register of the House, though Sanders said he planned to check if its fiscal impact would require it to move through the government finance committee as well.

The bill’s advancement marks a parallel track for the commissioner pay controversy, which has also effectively stalled a corrective deficiency budget bill. That legislation, which contains the salary hikes along with another $15 million in allocations, has passed off the Senate floor, though Democrats opted to delay the salaries going into effect until July 1.

That provision, which passed with near-unanimous support in the upper chamber, has driven a wedge between Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, whom Dayton said he could no longer trust to act in good faith; the House has not taken up the Senate’s version of the bill, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt has yet to spell out his caucus’ next move.

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