The political gamesmanship over salary hikes for Gov. Mark Dayton's cabinet heightened at the Capitol on Monday, as Republican lawmakers moved on two fronts to block Dayton from carrying out his decision to boost pay for some of his top advisers.
The GOP-controlled House first used an emergency funding bill for the Minnesota Zoo and troubled St. Peter state security hospital as a means to also roll back raises for three state commissioners.
Linden Zakula, a spokesman for Dayton, called the move "nothing more than a petty sideshow" and suggested it would interfere with delivering on the needs contained in the temporary spending bill.
In addition, Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, is proposing a bill that would strip the governor of his authority to raise commissioner salaries. That power had been granted to him in 2013 by a DFL-controlled Legislature. Rep. Sarah Anderson, the Plymouth Republican who chairs the State Government Finance Committee, could hold hearings on the raises as early as this week.
The emergency bill passed by the House Ways and Means Committee Monday is designed to provide stopgap funding to the departments of Health, Human Services and Natural Resources. But it now includes an amendment from Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, that would require cuts of $16,000, $6,000 and $18,000 on the three agencies, respectively, or roughly six months worth of the new raises for those commissioners. The amendment would not mandate cuts to commissioner salaries, instead ordering Minnesota Management and Budget to take the money from the commissioners' salaries, "to the extent possible."
That move by House Republicans came just hours after Dayton delivered a letter to legislative leaders that included a lengthy legal and substantive defense of the recently disclosed pay hikes.
But Republicans were unmoved. They say the raises, which go as high as $35,000, would boost salary too much in a single year. The new top salary for six commissioners is just under $155,000.
It's unclear if the fight over raises will impede the progress of the stopgap bill, which is set to pay for last year's spending on the Ebola crisis, as well as funding for the Minnesota Zoo, enforcement officers at the Department of Natural Resources and money for staff at St. Peter. Neither the full House nor the DFL Senate has yet acted on the measure.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, contrasted the state's hard-line negotiations with public safety officers to the generous raises given to commissioners. He called it a "slap in the face to peace officers" who risk their lives in defense of Minnesotans.
Dayton offered a vigorous defense of the raises last week; in his Monday letter he took to paper to argue they are both legal, and good policy.
"My administration followed the 2013 statute very carefully," Dayton wrote, referring to a law passed that year by the DFL-controlled Legislature that allowed pay to increase to 133 percent of the governor's salary, up from the previous cap of 85 or 95 percent. That same measure allowed the governor to raise the commissioner pay without legislative approval — now the target of the Peterson legislation.
Before smaller raises in 2013 and 2014, agency heads had seen no increase since 2000. A recent analysis by Minnesota Management and Budget showed that before the raises, 14 of 15 commissioners were paid at or below the 50th percentile compared to commissioners in other states; eight were below the 25th percentile. The raises push Minnesota salaries above the median.
Dayton noted in his letter that mid-level managers at many Minnesota companies earn more than his commissioners, who after the increases are earning between $140,000 and $155,000 a year. DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, for instance, manages a $17.7 billion budget and will now make about $155,000.
Dayton also pointed out that even after the raise, the state education commissioner is still earning about 80 percent of the yearly salary of superintendents at a number of larger Minnesota school districts. Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius had been making $119,000 before the raise. By contrast, the head of Minneapolis schools earns about $190,000.
Republicans scoffed at the argument that Dayton would struggle to attract and retain talented commissioners without the pay increase. Plenty of talented people would serve as Dayton's commissioners, "at the old price," said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston.
Dayton ended his letter by noting he also considers state legislators "woefully underpaid." Rank-and-file lawmakers earn $31,140 a year and legislative leaders make $43,596.
"Those low salaries are mired in the outdated mythology of a part-time Legislature," Dayton wrote. "I am ready to do whatever I can to help bring legislative salaries up to more appropriate levels through significant, one-time adjustments, as I have just made to the executive branch."
Given the politically toxic nature of salary increases for elected officials, this offer seems destined to be declined.
Several top managers in the legislative caucuses pull down paychecks approaching those of agency commissioners. According to public databases, in 2013 the executive directors of the DFL and GOP House caucuses respectively earned base salaries of $126,000 and $110,000; their counterparts with the Senate GOP and DFL caucuses also earn in excess of $100,000 a year. The highest-paid state House employees in 2013 were Albin Mathiowetz, the since-retired chief clerk whose base pay was $136,000; and William Marx, a senior fiscal analyst at $120,000.
Staff writer Alejandra Matos contributed to this report.