Dayton blasts GOP senators as 'unfit to govern'

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2012 - 9:53 AM

Rejection of PUC appointee infuriated governor. Republicans challenged her views backing "clean" energy.

Open political warfare erupted between Republicans in the Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday with the Senate's decision to oust a top Dayton appointee from office.

The Senate's 37-29 party-line vote rejecting former state Sen. Ellen Anderson as chair of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) prompted a stern rebuke from Dayton, in which he reminded Senate Republicans of their "leadership scandals" and pronounced them "unfit to govern."

Republicans said they voted Anderson down because of her views on "traditional" energy sources, such as coal and nuclear.

Dayton immediately hired Anderson as his senior energy adviser and said he warned top GOP leaders that bouncing Anderson could poison relations just as the legislative session begins.

"I said, you know, if you go this route, you're going to severely damage our relationship and our ability to work together,'' Dayton said. "I'm not going to be able to trust that you mean what you say when you say you want to be bipartisan. ... ''

Failure to confirm a gubernatorial appointee, which requires the appointee to leave office, is rare. It occurred only twice during Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's eight years. Republicans said they were motivated not by revenge, as DFLers said, but because they contend that Anderson was such an ardent environmentalist during her 18 years in the Senate that she could not perform the job fairly. Anderson has been at her post nearly a year.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, chairwoman of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, said Anderson had "demonized traditional energy sources" and made "deregatory references to, quote, dirty and dangerous fossil fuels, or energy cartels, that do not reflect well on the nominee.''

A quietly furious Dayton said at a news conference after the vote that "a very good person, a very dedicated public servant and an excellent chair of the Public Utilities Commission was wrongly maligned and cruelly rejected today by Republican senators, who showed once again they are unfit to govern this state. You would think that after their leadership scandals, which caused them to replace all their leaders last month, they would behave themselves for at least a little while.''

Dayton was referring to the December resignation of former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, who admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. That triggered a wholesale replacement of the Senate's Republican leadership team.

Dayton called Anderson's record, both in the Senate and on the PUC, mainstream and effective.

Hopes for harmony dashed

This was to be the legislative session that would wipe away 2011's partisan gridlock that led to a 20-day government shutdown.

Rosen, who took the lead in ousting Anderson, is the Senate leader on one of Dayton's main efforts -- to build a new home for the Vikings.

Republicans on Rosen's committee made their case against Anderson in a little-noticed confirmation hearing last year. They questioned her ability to put aside her role as an environmentalist and clean-energy advocate and fairly judge energy issues that come before the PUC, which sets rates and regulates gas, electric and telecommunications companies. Rosen said the Senate held off acting after Dayton asked that she be given time to do her new job.

Dayton said that of 221 votes before the five-member PUC since Anderson was appointed, 204 were unanimous and that of the 17 divided votes, Anderson was in the minority only six times.

During Monday's Senate floor debate, Rosen said she believed Anderson was "incapable of setting aside her personal beliefs for the common good.'' Rosen later said Anderson's removal was rooted in her legislative record, not her time as PUC commissioner.

DFLers accused Republicans of taking revenge for similar votes by the then-DFL-controlled Senate that sunk Pawlenty's transportation commissioner, Carol Molnau, in 2008, and his education commissioner, Cheri Pierson Yecke, in 2004. Said Sen. Mary Jo McGuire, DFL-St. Paul, who replaced Anderson in the Senate: "This is about as partisan as it gets.''

Dayton said he would move Anderson from the PUC onto his staff as an energy adviser at her current salary of $88,448, putting her beyond the Senate's reach. He also lit into the Senate GOP's short, but tempestuous record this year: balancing its budget by cutting the DFL Senate caucus budget but not its own and for hiring former GOP House Speaker Steven Sviggum, a member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. Dayton called Sviggum "a decent man," but said he had a "serious conflict of interest" that is "sullying the good reputation of our great university.''

Anderson said that "none of the things people have accused me of are true." Her removal, she said, "was unfair. It was wrong.''

The two largest investor-owned power companies in Minnesota, Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power, declined to comment. Wind, solar and other renewable-energy advocates called Anderson an ally who won compromises with Republicans on bills that spurred those emerging industries.

"I think it is really sad when you get someone that is qualified to do a job for the people of Minnesota and she is rejected for partisan political reasons," said Dan Juhl, CEO of Juhl Wind, a Woodstock, Minn.-based developer of community-owned wind farms. "This is so completely unfair."

Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, a St. Paul-based group that supports clean energy sources like wind, said that Anderson built consensus and sought compromise on a landmark 2007 renewable-energy bill that won broad support in the business community and was signed by Pawlenty.

"I think that the politics of clean energy is not bipartisan the way it used to be," said Noble, who interpreted Monday's vote as a sign of strength by coal and oil interests who "don't like the state's energy policy."

Staff writer David Shaffer contributed to this report.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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