Governor's staff partly paid by state agencies

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 9, 2009 - 6:18 AM

Some legislators of both parties question the arrangement, saying it hides actual expenses. Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman says it properly allocates costs to departments receiving support from the governor's office.

Josh Gackle could be the "Where's Waldo" of Minnesota state government.

Is he at the Agriculture Department? The Pollution Control Agency? How about over at the Department of Natural Resources? Gackle gets paid by all those departments and at least four other state agencies.

No doubt he's a busy man, but the real story behind Gackle's seemingly nomadic employment is that he works out of the office of Gov. Tim Pawlenty as a senior policy adviser.

Pawlenty's office pays $30,000 of Gackle's $72,000-a-year salary. The rest is covered by seven state agencies he monitors for the governor.

Uniquely in state government, Pawlenty's office can transfer the costs of some of his staff to other areas of the state budget. At least five employees from Pawlenty's office have their salaries partly paid by state agencies, reducing his office budget.

Some legislators of both parties question the arrangement, saying it hides actual expenses. Pawlenty's spokesman says it's a standard practice that properly allocates costs to departments receiving support from the governor's office.

In response to the state's budget crisis, Pawlenty has urged a hiring freeze in state government and has ordered state agencies to cut their budgets by 5 percent. He has said he will reduce his office budget by $360,000 a year, or 5.1 percent, and he points out that his office is planning for 38 full-time equivalent positions for the next two budget years while previous administrations had 55 positions at their peak.

The arrangements that pay for Gackle and the other staffers will continue to help make this apparent frugality possible. So-called interagency agreements reduced the governor's office budget by more than $700,000 last year, about 19 percent.

One of the staff members, Lee Buckley, is listed as Pawlenty's $92,000-a-year special adviser on Faith and Community Services, with half of that salary on the payroll at Corrections and Veterans Affairs. Buckley's job is to help coordinate re-integration efforts for prisoners and veterans, often with faith-based organizations.

When Pawlenty traveled to Israel on a trade mission in December, the $7,000 in expenses of his chief spokesman, Brian McClung, and Paul Anderson, a senior adviser, were picked up by the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, chairman of the State Government Budget Division Committee, said he plans to hold hearings on interagency agreements when the governor's office budget is before his committee.

"He's building up his staff at times when not only is he telling the agencies to take a 5 percent cut, but he's also pulling away money out of their budgets to fund his own office," Betzold said. "That doesn't sound like much of a cut to me."

At least one legislator said she has tried to eliminate the practice. Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, longtime chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Budget Division, said she has tried to eliminate governor's staff positions from the agency budgets under her scrutiny but has been told Pawlenty would veto any bill that cuts the staff.

"I'm sure they wouldn't be cutting that [governor's staff] person. It means somebody else loses a job who's actually directly serving the public," she said. "Some of these people actually have their desks and actually work in the governor's office. They are never seen at the department that's paying their salary. I just feel that that's not being honest with the public about how much tax dollars are going to support your office."

Pawlenty spokesman McClung said he is not aware of threats that bills would be vetoed because of any action taken related to the agreements.

Practice not new

Since Pawlenty took office in 2003, more than $1 million has been absorbed by other state departments for Pawlenty's senior policy advisers, none of whom has a desk, a chair or even a nameplate in the buildings of the agencies paying their salaries.

In addition, more than $1 million has been charged to state agencies' budgets for federal lobbying in Washington.

Another $500,000 has been charged to agencies for other governor's office staff.

Pawlenty spokesman McClung defended interagency agreements, saying they allow agencies to share work and resources and improve communication with the governor's office.

"When a large portion of an employee's time is spent on activities directly related to agency issues and initiatives, we charge the agency for a portion of that employee's salary and fringe benefits," McClung said. He said that the agreements are reassessed at least once each fiscal year and that no agencies have raised objections about being asked to participate.

Increased use

Republican Gov. Arne Carlson also funded staff through interagency agreements. But Pawlenty has made an increased use of them, particularly in funding senior policy advisers in his office.

Pawlenty's predecessor, IP Gov. Jesse Ventura, did not use other departments to pay for members of his staff. During Ventura's four-year term, the practice was largely confined to the Department of Administration picking up the salary for a $37,000-a-year grounds keeper at the governor's residence.

Both Republican and Democratic legislators have questioned interagency agreements in the past, saying they allow the governor to shade his actual expenses.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, a former chairman of the House State Government Operations Committee, has questioned the percentages billed to state agencies from the governor's office but believes the agencies are well-served by their presence. "I think they represent the interests of the departments, not just the governor," he said.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, whose nonpartisan office began a regular audit of the governor's office last week, said the use of state agency funding to perform functions in the governor's office "is definitely something we'll be taking a look at."

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636

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