Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, had a big, busy year as a legislator. Or is having, still. The Fourth of July holiday is just around the corner, and many lawmakers are taking time away from their work, or from the state itself, for a bit of relief from the political grind.
Not so for Anderson, who is still positioned at the center of an ongoing political controversy, namely, Gov. Mark Dayton’s decisions on raising salaries for his Cabinet commissioners. On Monday, June 29, Anderson went public with a letter she sent to Dayton, one of several messages she has communicated to the governor this year, urging him not to raise salaries in a way that is out-of-step with normal Minnesotans’ salaries.
Anderson did not ask to be at the crux of two of the most contentious issues this legislative session, but she also didn’t shy away from the spotlight when those fights came her way. As a key player in the debate over commissioner salaries, in February, and the role of the state auditor, in late May, Anderson was involved in the two disputes that effectively bookended the session. In between, the chair of the House State Government Finance Committee helped work on a compromise budget bill that passed, and barely avoided a governor’s veto.
Anderson spoke to Capitol Report to reflect on the session, and her perspective on the hot-button topics that have consumed her year.
Capitol Report: How much of your opposition to the governor’s commissioner raises was about the salaries themselves, and how much was about the way it was done?
Anderson: It was a little bit of both, in the sense that it doesn’t go through legislative approval, and it should obviously go through legislative approval. We approve everything else in spending taxpayers’ dollars. It’s basically making the governor’s office the sole decider. So, I’m glad we fixed that, going into the future. Having said that, it is, also, about being obtuse to what the average family is going through. When you have commissioners that are receiving a 42 percent increase for a temporary job, that is a hard thing for Minnesotans to get behind. They were outraged. I got emails, I got phone calls, people would stop me and say, “That’s ridiculous, thanks for fighting for us, as taxpayers.”
CR: This was something passed under DFL majorities. From a political perspective, why not let it happen and blame Democrats for having done it in the first place?
Anderson: We’re here about good government. That’s our job and responsibility. I think people that do that are not about public service. That’s just wrong. You have the opportunity to fix something that was done, as an error in judgment, we have the responsibility to do it.
CR: One of the things you pushed for this year was a bill making it harder for state agencies to make rules that would have an economic impact. Why did you want that change?
Anderson: For a couple reasons. When it comes to rulemaking, I think people are under the assumption this is something that gets passed down by the Legislature, which is an elected body. And, they come to us as legislators and say, “you represent me, why is this happening?” And we have to look around and say, “I don’t know. Why is this happening?” By putting this safety measure in place, it gives us greater accountability; it gives the citizens of Minnesota an opportunity to say we don’t think this is right. It was just a good government measure, and it’s a piece of legislation I’m hoping we can continue to work on in this next session.
CR: As it passed in the House, the state government finance bill had a prescribed maximum number of state employees. Was that a realistic provision to uphold?
Anderson: It was completely realistic. When you look at the numbers for it, we went back as far as 2008, and I calculated the average [number of state employees] for each quarter, and then I took the average for each year. And we were well above the average for each year. I knew they wouldn’t go to that number, so I said, let’s pick one of the higher numbers from 2014. When you consider all the averages, of what the number should be, it was well above that. I think what we’re seeing is government is growing at a rapid rate, and in the long-term that’s not sustainable. If we don’t want to tackle this issue now, it’s just going to make it more challenging in the future.
CR: You’ve spoken often about trying to make government as efficient, and as small, as possible. What did you accomplish along those lines this session?
Anderson: One of the big provisions, you’re probably very familiar with, is the state auditor provision. That was borne out of counties wishing to get some relief, both from a property taxpayer perspective, and also for getting usable data. It was just a better way of having better government, being more efficient. We also have some other really good nuggets in there. One of them … is working with the Pew MacArthur Trust, and it looks at what our overall spending is on health and human services and then our Department of Corrections, to see if we’re being most efficient in that realm. I think that will give us some really good data, moving into the future, that can help us shape policy in those two areas.
CR: It was announced last week that the administration has reached agreement with AFSCME and MAPE on new contracts, which come with a 2.5 percent increase for state workers. What’s your feeling about compensation levels for those employees?
Anderson: I think when you look at that Hay [Group] report on compensation, it shows that Minnesota is above the average when it comes to compensation packages. It’s not just the salary you look at, you have to look at what we provide in health care benefits, in retirement benefits, pensions, all of that. I think we need to be mindful of what message, again, are we sending to the citizens of Minnesota. When you consider our health care packages in particular, and you consider the copays, things of that nature. I think we need to have a deeper conversation in what this means, long-term. We delved into some of that this year, but I think we have more to do there.
CR: On changing the state auditor provision, some saw that as Iron Range Democrats striking back at Rebecca Otto personally for positions she’s taken in opposition to some mining leases. Did you see any of that playing out?
Anderson: Not at all. This issue had been around for quite some time. That’s the reason there are 28 counties that are currently exempt, because this is an issue that’s been around for that long. This is not something unique, or new, this is not something that’s limited to her tenure as auditor. We just were able to find a compromise and get this in place, and I think it’s good policy.
CR: Are you concerned about the possibility of a lawsuit, as Rebecca Otto has threatened? Have you consulted sought legal counsel about the law’s constitutionality?
Anderson: I have talked to nonpartisan staff. I’ve studied how this office has changed over the years. She’s going to have a pretty tough sell, because this office has been reshaped, abolished, recreated. It basically has done gymnastics. So, what we did here is small in comparison to changes that have been made in the past on this issue. If she does choose to go that route, I think she really is going to have a tough sell.