By Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
The DFL-controlled Senate on Thursday quickly swept through confirmation of Gov. Mark Dayton's picks to lead his agencies.
In just over an hour, the Senate okayed Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle, Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans, Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
Most of the agency heads have led their departments for two years but served without Senate confirmation. Commissioners are permitted to keep their jobs without confirmation but must leave if the Senate ousts them. When the Senate was in Republican hands last year, it ousted Dayton's appointee to lead the Public Utilities Committee.
This year, now that the Senate is in Democratic hands, commissioners have zipped through confirmation commissioners.
With almost no debate on Thursday, Frans, Ehlinger and Jesson received the Senate's blessing.
Zelle, Dayton's transportation chief, raised more discussion. Although the senators said they supported Zelle's leadership, they also expressed concern about his role in Jefferson Bus Lines and the transportation department's role in giving grants to the private company.
Before he came to lead the state transportation agency this year, Zelle was the head of Jefferson Lines, a regional bus company that has received government grants.
"Please be aware of this potential conflict of interest... as we move forward," said Sen. Senator John C. Pederson, R-St. Cloud.
"There is if not the reality the perception of a conflict of interest," said Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth.
Minneapolis Sen. Scott Dibble, the DFL chair of the Senate transportation committee, said that Zelle had created a document to make clear that he would have no decision making power over any grants that impact Jefferson Lines, a Zelle family business.
Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said Zelle's role at Jefferson Lines posed no conflict and lawmakers should expect that commissioners with business expertise have connections outside of their state roles.
"Let's make it clear, there’s not a conflict of interest until there is a conflict of interest," Cohen said.
Cassellius, Dayton's Education Commissioner, also caused some strife on the Senate floor. The issue was the Education Department's proposed new social studies standards, which have attracted criticism for their treatment of America's founding and other issues. An Administrative Law Judge is considering whether to let the standards take effect.
Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, questioned whether Casselius violated state law by undertaking a rewrite of the previous social studies standards, and said the Senate should await the judge's decision before confirming her. A motion to delay the confirmation failed by a 39-26 vote, and the confirmation was approved by a separate 45-20 vote.
Update: here's the letter Zelle put on file regarding how he would handle a potential conflict: