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Tensions high as state government compromise, pensions plan heard

Members of the House State Government Finance Division listen May 23 to a walk-through of the omnibus state government, military affairs, and veterans affairs finance agreement to be introduced when a special session is called. Photo by Paul Battaglia

“This may not be what either body or the executive branch came in wanting, but will, I think, meet the needs of state agencies and employees well.”

That is the assessment by Eric Hallstrom, deputy commissioner at Minnesota Management and Budget, of the omnibus state government, military affairs, and veterans affairs finance agreement presented Thursday to the House State Government Finance Division.

“Although the executive branch increases are overall modest, these operating adjustments are critical to ensure that our agencies provide the same level of service as in prior years while keeping up with the costs of employee compensation, technology costs and the like,” he said.

No action was taken at a meeting, that was sometimes critical of the process — or lack thereof — but the language is expected to be voted on by the House and Senate in an upcoming special session.

The nearly $1.16 billion compromise falls in the middle of what the three parties were seeking. The House sought nearly $1.2 billion; Gov. Tim Walz called for $1.18 billion; and the Senate $1.07 billion. The agreed upon 2020-21 biennial number represents a $60.29 million base increase.  

[MOREView the spreadsheet, compromise summary]

Among the funding increases would be $23.36 million for the Legislature, including $11.5 million for the House and $6.3 million for the Senate. This, in part, is due to $1,500 legislator pay increases set by the Legislative Salary Council that take effect July 1, 2019. Other increase would be for costs associated with redistricting, technology increases, replacement of outdated equipment and office space build out in the State Office Building. 

MNIT Services would receive $10 million for cybersecurity enhancements across state government; the Office of the Secretary of State would receive a $3.32 million increase, of which, $2 million would be for election equipment grants; $1.6 million would go the Department of Administration to implement a Census 2020 Mobilization program; and $141,000 would reimburse Becker and Wright counties for legal costs to successfully defend themselves in a lawsuit by former State Auditor Rebecca Otto.


HAVA funding, presidential primary change

The agreement would appropriate, in the current fiscal year, nearly $6.6 million in federal election security funds “for administration and security of elections as authorized by federal law.” Funds would be available until March 23, 2023.

Congress passed the grant funds in March 2018 to help thwart future cyberattacks on election infrastructure. Minnesota was the only state that did not claim those grant dollars ahead of the 2018 election after former Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the appropriation as part of a larger omnibus bill.

The House-passed version would have appropriated the full amount available to the state during Fiscal Year 2019; the Senate version would appropriate only $1.5 million and included language that would require the secretary of state’s office to develop a report on inactive voters who registered on Election Day and were potentially ineligible to vote.

Another election change aims to keep voter data private.

Current statute requires a county auditor to make publicly available a list that includes the party choice of anyone who voted in the most recent presidential nomination primary. The compromise would make such voter data private; however, a list of voters corresponding to each party would be provided to each major political party.

Other policy in the agreement would:

  • establish the Legislative Commission on Housing Affordability, which would expire June 30, 2023;
  • create an advisory task force to review and report to the Legislature on strategies for attracting and retaining state employees with disabilities;
  • allow all counties to make the county auditor, treasurer, recorder or treasurer-auditor appointed, rather than elected;
  • establish May 14 each year as Hmong Special Guerilla Units Remembrance Day, June 30 as American Allies Day, the first Saturday of every October as Veterans Suicide Awareness Day and the third Friday in September as Prisoners of War and Missing in Action Recognition Day; and
  • require state positions classified as managerial to be posted, and applications accepted, for at least 21 days. However, an allowance is provided to waive the requirement. Job requirements could not be altered to fit a particular candidate prior to the posting and internal documents identifying a particular candidate as the future holder of a position could not occur prior to their official hiring.

Former DFL Rep. Joe Radinovich was hired earlier this year by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board as a senior-level program and policy advisor. The job was posted for just 24 hours and Radinovich doesn’t have a college degree, a position requirement. Additionally an internally created document showed Radinovich in the position before he was hired. He resigned last month.


Pension agreement, too

Also before the division was most of the language expected to become the pension bill.

“The most important thing to remember about pensions is that they are promises made that must be kept,” said Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown), a member of the Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement.

“Almost everything in the bill was approved by the pension commission,” said Susan Lenczewski, executive director of the commission. “There are a few minor tweaks, some minor amendments to a couple of provisions that have not yet been put in front of the pension commission, but when we have this bill heard later today we expect that the bill will be approved.”

Three provisions have been removed from what had been approved by the commission. “It is still my hope that there will be a change to this bill when I present it to the pension commission,” Murphy said.

Rep. Jerry Hertaus (R-Greenfield) expressed borderline anger the division would not be allowed to ratify any future changes made by the commission before the bill goes to the House and Senate for votes.


Decrying the post-session process

Hertaus is frustrated how the 2019 session is ending, noting the current closed-door meetings between legislative leaders and the governor to create compromise makes other members “feckless and useless.”

“We’re going to go into caucuses once we are finally called into special session and we’re going to be told there’ll be little or no amendments, if any. Everything that we’ve done for the whole year is down the drain. We’re starting over, it’s a special session. … We as a Legislature don’t have to put up with this; we don’t have to agree to anything. The governor calls a session and we end it. This is just a sham and a mockery. I don’t really want to participate in this charade, but I’ll be here and I’ll listen. This is not transparency; this is what three people want. I don’t think any of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle like this any better than I do.”

Rep. Michael Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park), the division chair, was frustrated with the process as well, but also the lack of Senate Republican conference committee participation. He, too, believes the legislative culture needs to change.

“(They) chose to drag those all out and not come to decisions at the end of conference committee,” Nelson said. “… We can sit here and proselytize and we can scream and argue at each other, but, members, we are here to get a job done.”


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