The Legislature tossed the political hot potato of state commissioner pay hikes back into Gov. Mark Dayton’s lap Thursday, with the Senate and House voting to roll back controversial raises for Dayton’s cabinet, but giving him a one-day window to restore them.
That means come July 1, Dayton will be able to repeat an act that blew up politically the first time he did it — unilaterally granting nearly $900,000 in raises to 30 state commissioners. Starting July 2, the authority to set commissioner salaries will revert from the governor to the Legislature.
Dayton, apparently eager to put the issue behind him, signed the bill early Thursday evening, just hours after it passed the House. But Dayton remained mum on whether he would restore the raises on July 1.
“Ask me on June 30,” he said. Some of the initial raises were as large as $35,000 per year. Under the compromise bill, Dayton would be allowed to soften the hike by phasing in the raises over several years. He also has the option of issuing smaller raises than those he initially granted.
When news of the salary jumps first broke, Dayton defended them as vital to the recruitment and retention of top talent to lead state agencies. He noted that some commissioners overseeing multimillion-dollar budgets and thousands of employees were making less than the chief clerk of the House. But Dayton surrendered after the ensuing controversy threatened to derail more pressing legislative matters.
Concern over the bill’s fate had been growing daily. Initially the bill was crafted as an emergency funding bill, designed to provide nearly $16 million to several agencies that were running short. Such bills typically are not controversial and speed through the Legislature to get the aid where it’s needed. Money will go to the state security hospital at St. Peter, which was running out of money to care for its patients; to the Minnesota Zoo, which was on the verge of closing exhibits after incurring extra heating costs, and the Minnesota Food Assistance program, which was faced with reducing food access for hundreds of senior citizens.
A Capitol divided
The pay raise controversy was one that divided Capitol DFLers, most notably Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk. The two publicly mended their relationship this week after an earlier blowup over the issue. But the compromise that GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt negotiated with Dayton to resolve the issue on Thursday divided Republicans, too, with a succession of Republican senators blasting the provision that lets Dayton restore the raises.
“We are not stopping these increases. These increases will still go into effect,” said Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville. “We are giving the governor a 24-hour window of opportunity to increase salaries.”
That left Senate Democrats to defend the deal between Dayton and Daudt. It was Daudt, R-Crown, who brokered the compromise after Dayton publicly branded Bakk a conniver and backstabber. The outburst came in the wake of an amendment Bakk proposed that would delay the salary raises and take away the governor’s authority to grant such raises in the future. Few Senate Democrats during Thursday’s floor vote actually defended the need for the raises, although Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, suggested they are justified.
“State government has lost significant folks of high competence and high quality,” Cohen said. He said comparatively low commissioner salaries have allowed local governments and school districts to woo top talent from state government.
“I haven’t heard that just from Governor Dayton, I’ve heard that from every single governor of every single party that I’ve served with,” Cohen said. Historically, commissioner salaries have been tied to those of the governor, capped at a certain percentage above the governor’s salary.
The Senate passed the compromise measure 35-29, with all Republicans and two Democrats voting against it. They were Sen. Greg Clausen of Eagan and Sen. Kent Eken of Twin Valley in northwestern Minnesota.
Senate Republicans insisted it would be a campaign issue in 2016; indications of that have already appeared, in the form of campaign-style fliers targeting Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, over the pay raises.
The fliers against Franzen, who represents a swing district, were distributed by Minnesota Action Network, a right-leaning political group founded by former Sen. Norm Coleman.
But support for the deal from House Republicans could defang it as a winning political issue for Republicans. A few hours after the Senate debate, the House took up the compromise and quickly approved it, 108-20, with a handful of Republicans and Democrats voting no. No House Republicans spoke out against it.
“I want to thank Speaker Daudt personally,” said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. “He has said we’re not going to politicize these issues of commissioner pay for the rest of the session.”