State boards and commissions face new scrutiny

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2013 - 10:42 AM

Minnesota spends $160 million a year on more than 160 commissions and boards. Some exist in name only.

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Gov. Dayton: ‘‘I am against the micromanaging that gets to be absurd.’’

 

A state board on nuclear waste has not met since Rudy Perpich was governor in the 1980s. Another state board broke the law when it collected an extra $800,000 in fees. Requirements for serving on one state commission are so specific that at least three members must have disabled children under the age of 7.

Underneath Minnesota’s elected government is an ever-growing roster of more than 160 boards and commissions. Some are so obscure that they appear to exist in name only. Others are so powerful they dole out millions in grants and can make or break careers.

Now Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators are taking a fresh look at a level of government that has received little scrutiny in the past, eyeing the scope of the boards’ duties and the accompanying $321 million in costs over a two-year budget cycle. That estimate, from Minnesota Management and Budget, does not include legislative or judicial commissions or a host of other even lesser-known boards.

“I am not against the boards and commissions,” Dayton said in a recent interview. “I am against the micromanaging that gets to be absurd.”

State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, the lead Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said there simply are too many boards to monitor properly.

“There’s not enough oversight,” said Holberg, R-Lake­ville. “It is always more fun for legislators to pick something shiny to work on than take a look at what is already there.”

So vast is the network of such groups that their unfilled seats stands at 375, with another wave of vacancies coming in January, even as administrators work to find qualified applicants to appoint.

The roster of boards has expanded with every new administration, change in legislative leadership and shift in public sentiment.

Many of the boards and commissions were created to tackle specific, complex issues, while others appear to have been little more than consolation prizes for constituencies that didn’t get satisfaction in the Legislature.

27 years without a meeting

“Undoubtedly, it is clear that many boards and commissions are no longer living up to the purpose for which they were created,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. In particular, Thissen noted a nuclear waste commission that has not met since 1986.

Minnesota’s Legislative Auditor has reviewed about 50 boards and commissions over the years, finding several with lax financial controls and less-than-exemplary record-keeping.

In one review, auditors noted that the Board of Barber and Cosmetologist Examiners could not account for $10,000 of license fee receipts.

Around 2005, an architecture and engineering board was late paying bills and broke state law by collecting $883,000 more in fees from members than was necessary to cover costs.

The Minnesota ­Humanities Center never got a final report from an organization that failed to adequately show how it used $206,700 in grants. From 1999 through 2002, the Governor’s Residence Council failed to maintain a detailed log of incoming gifts or a complete inventory of state assets at the governor’s residence.

Despite years of tough talk by members of both parties, boards can be remarkably difficult to do away with.

Republicans who won control of both bodies of the Legislature in 2010 formed a Sunset Commission, which was supposed to force state boards and commissions to prove their merit or be disbanded.

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