- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - In their unfolding budget plan, Minnesota legislative Republicans are moving to strip powers from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, ranging from limiting his team’s authority to write regulatory rules to curbs on the administration’s staffing.

It’s been overshadowed by the multi-billion dollar debates over schools, health care and tax cuts, but the power struggle is an important flashpoint in the Legislature’s closing weeks. Republicans who control only the House see the chance to have more say over workplace safety regulations, water-quality rules, health standards and environmental permitting as a crucial check against an executive branch they’ve been shut out of since Tim Pawlenty left office in 2011.

Dayton sees the regulatory and personnel measures as political tampering that would impede government from operating efficiently.

“The intrusions into the prerogatives and the responsibilities of the executive branch are unacceptable,” an agitated Dayton said as he challenged the motives for the proposed changes. He added, “If somebody else in the Legislature wants to run the executive branch of state government, they should run for governor.”

The Legislature and the governor jointly guide state regulatory policy in laws they pass, but executive branch agencies have the power of the rulemaking process to spell out the finer details and interpret how those fit into permitting or enforcement decisions.

The more significant changes would give lawmakers veto power on certain rules, setting them aside unless lawmakers consent. One budget bill creates a “substantial economic impact” test that would flag rules deemed likely to have a private-sector impact of $5 million or more. Another trigger is if compliance costs exceed more than $25,000 for any single business with fewer than 50 full-time employees.

An environmental budget bill would require the state’s Pollution Control Agency to get legislative sign-off to enact new water-quality standards if they are estimated to have a financial impact of $50 million on all permit holders within the first five years or $5 million on a single permit holder.

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said it’s all about watching over a bureaucracy that isn’t as accountable as elected officials are.

“Sometimes when you go through an agency the authority gets a little lost in the weeds, so it’s important for us that we have control about what’s going on in the state and that includes regulations and permitting,” Peppin said.

Tony Kwilas, director of environmental policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said he believes the thresholds have been set high enough to prevent a pile-up of proposed rules in lawmakers’ laps.

“What we don’t want is every single rule looked at by the Legislature,” Kwilas said. “What we want are the ones with significant economic impact on cities, the business community and others to be reviewed.”

But House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis Democrat, regards the GOP tack as micromanaging and worries that it will invite too much political influence on decisions that should be rooted in technical analysis and science.

“They seem to think they’re more experts on the things that come before the state of Minnesota than the people who really are experts and do the work,” Thissen said. “It’s just kind of silly.”

Scott Strand, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said running more regulations through the Legislature would make it tougher to revise rules aimed at cleaner air, water and power sources.

“It seems democratic but it is all about gridlock,” Strand said. “It is always easier to stop something at the Legislature.”

The tugging match goes beyond regulations.

There is a move afoot to remove the executive branch’s power to give cost or revenue estimates for bills under consideration. The idea of stripping the duties from the Department of Minnesota Management and Budget has been embraced by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, too. Under a House plan, the power would be shifted to the legislative auditor.

House GOP budget setters also want to forbid Dayton from hiring new employees or filling vacancies if it brings the state worker headcount above 36,211 full-time employees.

And they would slap harder caps on executive branch pay. A provision ties managerial salary increases to rises in Minnesota’s median household income or, in some cases, a percentage of new money the state directs to veterans health care.

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Follow Brian Bakst on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Stowydad

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