- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

St. Cloud Times, Feb. 12

Tie salary increases to performance

Gov. Dayton has announced big pay raises for his cabinet members. Some are as much as $35,000. The top salaries will be those of six commissioners who earn close to $155,000.

Dayton sent a detailed explanation to state lawmakers Monday explaining his ability to grant the pay hikes under a 2013 law passed by the Legislature, Democrat-controlled at the time. The law allows the governor to raise salaries up to 133 percent of the governor’s pay.

Dayton cited the need to keep salaries competitive to attract top talent. He said superintendents in large school districts make more than the state’s education commissioner.

The Republican-controlled House quickly responded. It wants to block the pay increases.

One effort would repeal the powers granted the governor under the 2013 law.

Another is contained in an amendment to an emergency funding bill for three agencies. The amendment would require cuts of $16,000, $6,000 and $18,000 to those agencies’ budgets to make up for the pay raises.

Many critics say the raises are too much, too fast. However, all of the increases are legal under the 2013 law.

While the argument that paying market rates attracts the best and the brightest has merit, one word that hasn’t been discussed is performance.

All pay increases should be based on how well leaders have done their jobs and how well the agency has performed against predetermined goals.

Instead, it is all about how those salaries haven’t kept pace.

The commissioners received smaller raises in 2013 and 2014. Previous to those bumps, no pay increases had been granted since 2000. Pay raises shouldn’t be tied to inflation rates. Performance should determine pay.

These unbudgeted pay raises for the commissioners should trigger budget reductions of equal value, resulting in a budget-neutral solution.

Salary increases in state government are always controversial. But there is no excuse for letting pay levels fall so far behind that $30,000 pay hikes in one year are required. If pay is tied to performance, an orderly method to keep pay rates competitive should be achieved.

Otherwise, the back-and-forth of passing and killing legislation to handle the matter cripples the ability to plan.

It is a mess that the 2013 law was expected to settle. Looks like this political football is being inflated again.

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The Free Press of Mankato, Feb. 10

A wise slowdown of potato irrigation

Anyone who’s taken a summer vacation in recent years and driven in the Brainerd-to-Bemidji region has seen a transformation on much of the landscape.

Land that was mostly grasslands or pine forests are now sprawling potato fields. The potatoes grow well in the sandy soil - if they are heavily irrigated. And irrigated they are, by deep wells that supply water to large irrigation systems that spray water as they slowly creep in a circle around the fields.

The Star Tribune reported that the so called pines-to-potatoes conversion of land has been massive in north-central Minnesota. Since 2006, about 275 square miles of natural land has been converted to row-crop farming.

Much of it has been done by North Dakota-based potato processor R.D. Offutt. The company has been issued 32 permits for high capacity ground water wells and has proposed an additional 54 wells.

Offutt has purchased 12,000 acres of pine forest and already converted a third of it to potato farming.

Last week, Minnesota Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr announced his agency was putting a halt to any more land conversion or well permits for Offutt until after a study of water and wildlife impacts is done.

The study, which could take up to a year, is overdue. The farm conversion is taking place atop the pristine Pineland Sands Aquifer, near the upper Mississippi River. The sandy soil not only requires heavy irrigation, but it more easily allows nutrients and pesticides from farming to leach into groundwater and surface water.

While Minnesota is blessed with water resources, the supply is not unlimited. The state has recently begun taking a closer look at the growing amount of water being used for agriculture, drinking, and other uses across Minnesota.

Beyond the water issue alone, the conversion of jack pine forests to farming raises a number of environmental and wildlife concerns.

Minnesota has a rich farming history and we all rely on the food produced from potatoes to soybeans. And Offutt, by all accounts, has made great strides in adopting techniques to reduce the amount of nutrients and pesticides it uses.

But economic benefits of farming need to be weighed against the need to protect the environment, unique forests, water and wildlife.

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St. Paul Pioneer Press, Feb. 10

Minnesota: Resist automatic spending increases

An idea at the Legislature that would, in effect, put some school funding on autopilot is a bad one.

Lawmakers should guard zealously the control they have over state spending and the regular setting and re-setting of priorities.

The concept, which has had previous airings before state lawmakers, would tie the school funding formula to inflation, helping local school district leaders, who cite challenges keeping up with rising costs as they formulate their budgets.

School leaders long have complained that increases of 1 percent or 2 percent a year don’t keep pace with their districts’ expenses, the Pioneer Press Christopher Magan reported earlier this month.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, explains that districts are on the same fiscal calendar as the state, July 1 to June 30. They’re required by law to have their budgets adopted before the new year begins.

But with the Legislature not making final decisions on big spending bills until mid-May, “school districts are putting together their budgets almost blindly,” Croonquist argues. “They’ve started the process, and yet they really don’t know what the funding level is going to be for next two years.”

They are required to “plug in estimates,” he said, making assumptions about the final numbers. And the estimates - whether too generous or too restrictive - could have consequences for district operations, on teacher staffing and the broader community, he said.

An increase linked to the consumer price index would at least cover inflation-related costs and help stabilize the budget process, said Croonquist. It’s not an unreasonable step, he maintains, for spending that provides for a function that’s a state constitutional requirement.

Still, we’ve warned about the perceived cushion of a projected budget surplus, about the comfort it gives lawmakers who find it tempting to give up the discipline they should bring to their work every year, rain or shine. We remind them that every dollar they add to the base spending today multiplies itself into the future - adding burden in future years.

As we maintain on these pages, more spending today increases the chances for deficits when the economy inevitably cycles downward, and leaves less flexibility for response. Every dollar not spent today is a dollar-plus-inflation that doesn’t have to be spent tomorrow and the next day and the next.

Better to have a challenge for school budget officials - who must stretch every taxpayer dollar for their students - than spending that compounds automatically.

This is one situation where “the way it’s been done” for decades is just fine.


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