Minnesota spends $160 million a year on more than 160 commissions and boards. Some exist in name only.
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.
The bipartisan group reviewed about 40 agencies, boards and commissions. In the end, it did away with just one, the Combative Sports Commission, whose duties were folded into another agency.
“Every single program was somebody’s great idea at some point,” Holberg said. “You never know who you are going to run up against when you suggest doing away with these programs.”
Democrats ended the Sunset Commission when they retook the Legislature in 2012, then launched their own bipartisan review. The group has identified about 40 boards and commissions it will recommend be scrapped.
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Chamberlain pressed Democrats to do more to reduce boards and commissions. “We should take a hard look at it, inventory it, categorize it, commission by commission,” said Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. Anything less, he said, is “disingenuous and silly.”
One board has already asked to be downsized.
For years, the Minnesota State Council on Disability had 21 members, many with disabilities that made it expensive to bring them to the Twin Cities for meetings. Some even had to fly in to attend the gatherings.
After several years of testing life with a smaller board, the group successfully petitioned the Legislature to whittle its membership to 17.
The board’s leader said it can be successful with a narrower focus and still keep everyday Minnesotans engaged with state government.
‘The land of 10,000 boards’
“We are the land of 10,000 boards,” said Joan Willshire, the disability council’s executive director. “That’s a good thing. That is one of Minnesota’s strengths. We really work with the people.”
One of the biggest challenges boards face is just finding bodies.
Charged with appointing replacements for many boards and commissions, Dayton said he was surprised to learn how difficult legislators have made it to fill many seats. In some instances, legislators have created such a specific prescription for board makeup that strong candidates are turned away because they live outside a boundary or don’t meet certain criteria.
This seat cannot be filled
State law requires one member of a potato promotion board in northwestern Minnesota to be from a potato processing operation — even though there no longer are any potato processors in the region.
It takes 250 words to explain precisely who can serve on the State Interagency Coordinating Council. State law requires: “at least five parents, including persons of color, of children with disabilities under age 12, including at least three parents of a child with a disability under age seven, five representatives of public or private providers of services for children with disabilities under age five.”
Some requirements are overtly political, dividing appointments on certain boards among the House speaker, Senate leaders and minority leaders.
Dayton said he is committed to pressing legislators to clean up the requirements, making it easier to fill seats with qualified candidates.
“It’s this need of legislators to micromanage,” Dayton said. “They really want to control the operations side rather than trust the executive branch. ... But they are oblivious to what I call the cumulative effect.”
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, has a solution for the upcoming legislative session that both sides might be able to get behind: Eliminate seats on any board that have proved too tough to fill. She also suggested eliminating any board or commission that hasn’t met for years.
“It would be perfect” for the upcoming session, she said.
Some boards are still struggling for relevance after years of neglect.
Since its creation in the early 1990s, the Board of Invention has never had a member appointed, a single dollar allocated to run it or held a meeting.
“We have never been able to do anything,” said Dan Ferber, who at 86 is still pressing for money and appointments to a board he was the guiding force to create.
Over the years, Ferber even did all the recruiting himself and presented a list of candidates to the staff of former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Somehow the list got lost in the transition from Pawlenty to Dayton.
Ferber had a mild stroke in recent years and can no longer travel to the Capitol for a meeting if the board were to be convened.
“I can’t do much now except try to keep the concept going,” he said. “I really do hope we can get this board up and running one day. It would be a great service to Minnesota.”
Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044