- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Majority House Republicans took an initial step Monday to punish Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton over hefty raises awarded to top administration managers, demanding commensurate agency budget cuts as part of an important spending bill.

The GOP added a clause that trims spending in a few agencies equal to commissioner raises, which came to light last week in a required notification to the Legislature. The underlying spending package includes money to pay for last fall’s Ebola readiness efforts, to deal with a deficiency in enforcement programs at the Department of Natural Resources and to hire more staff at the strained St. Peter state security hospital for sex offenders.

The move applies only the departments of Natural Resources, Health and Human Services - the only three with emergency funding at stake in the bill - but signals a hardball tactic likely to hit other agencies later. Those departments would have to absorb spending cuts to account for respective commissioner pay raises of $18,000, $16,000 and $6,000. It doesn’t require pay cuts for those managers.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, derided the “luxurious, gold-plated salaries that were announced last week” as out-of-step with stagnant wages for many Minnesota residents. He sponsored the provision to withhold state money from those agencies.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said other agencies can expect similar treatment as upcoming budget bills advance. He said Republicans will also push to strip unilateral pay-raise power from the governor.

In a letter to lawmakers dated Monday, Dayton defended the new pay as catching up for years of flat salaries that has caused key positions to fall behind local government offerings or more lucrative posts in the private sector.

“I want to make clear that none of my commissioners have ever complained to me about their salaries,” Dayton wrote. “Not one has ever asked me for a raise. But they, like other working Minnesotans, deserve compensation that is commensurate with their responsibilities.”

Dayton was operating under a 2013 law that eased a strict salary cap and authorized him to set salaries well above the $124,000 he earns. His top commissioners will now make about $155,000, though some in smaller agencies will earn less.

Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, compared the increased pay to the $891,000 sought in the bill to account for the Ebola preparations undertaken by the Department of Health when an outbreak in West Africa had U.S. officials on high alert.

“You needed $800,000 to fill this hole,” she said as Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger testified before the House Ways and Means Committee. “You didn’t get it from the governor. Instead what we’re looking at is the governor spending $800,000 for pay increases for his commissioners.”

The stopgap spending bill also would provide $2 million to assist hospitals designated as Ebola treatment facilities, $1.35 million to help the Minnesota Zoo meet its obligations through this June, $568,000 to assure an adequate complement of DNR conservation officers patrolling lakes and trails this spring and $10.4 million to shore up staffing at the problem-plagued St. Peter security hospital.

Democratic Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis said it’s wrong to single out three agencies for retribution.

“Yeah, let’s have a broader conversation about compensation. Maybe that’s in order,” Hornstein said. “But certainly not randomly taking three commissioners who have done a very admirable job.”

A similar bill is advancing through the Senate, but doesn’t have the commissioner-pay language.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he’s waiting for the House to pass a deficiency funding bill before scheduling a vote in his own chamber.

___

Associated Press writer Kia Farhang contributed.


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