House OKs bill cutting 12 percent of state workers

Lanning, Rep. Keith Downey

Twelve percent of Minnesota state government jobs would disappear in the next two years and those still on the payroll would not get a raise if a Republican budget bill becomes law.

After a debate of more than six hours, the House passed the bill 72-61 Wednesday that also would require a review of all state agencies in a process that could lead to the end for many departments and would cut the number of deputy and assistant commissioners the governor may appoint.

At the same time, the bill does not cut state workers’ pay, it does not force employees to pay more for their pensions and it does not affect their unions’ bargaining power.

The bill would trim agencies’ spending by up to 20 percent, Chairman Morrie Lanning of the House state government committee said.

“We need to change the way we go about spending the state’s money,” the Moorhead Republican said.

The bill, and a similar one senators already passed, funds state agencies under statewide elected officers and the governor.

The House measure cuts 8 percent of Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget and a like amount from Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. However, it would trim 12 percent off the budgets of Attorney General Lori Swanson and State Auditor Rebecca Otto. All are Democrats.

The Senate would lose 8 percent of its money under the House bill, but the House would just be cut 5 percent.

Many agencies receive a 10 percent to 12 percent cut in the bill. The National Guard and Military Affairs Department would receive more funds than in the current budget.

Democrats argued against the Republican-written bill, including its requirement that 12 percent of state jobs be eliminated in the next two years and 15 percent in four years.

Much of Wednesday’s debate was about trimming the number of state employees.

“When you use the sexy term of a 15 percent reduction in government, it’s nameless and faceless and sanitized,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said. “But a middle class job is a middle class job. And in the Republican’s case, they’re slashing nearly 5,000 of them today with their state government operations bill.”

Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, said the cuts and pay freeze makes the GOP bill look a lot like Wisconsin, where a Republican governor promotes eliminating state workers’ union bargaining rights.

“It hurts all Minnesotans,” Gauthier said.

Lanning said budget cuts in his bill could affect Minnesotans, but he could not provide specifics.

“There will be some agencies that will have a difficult time offering the full range of services that they do now,” he said.

Lanning said his bill does not micromanage how departments handle budget cuts: “What they sacrifice to meet that goal is up to them.”

Democrats said the Lanning bill gives state agencies too little guidance about how to spend money.

Dayton’s commissioners wrote letters to Lanning saying his bill will not work.

Acting Revenue Commissioner Dan Salomone said cuts to his department would cost the state $111 million because he would not have enough people to enforce tax laws, so some who owe taxes could not be prosecuted.

Commissioner Jim Showalter of Minnesota Management and Budget said the 13 percent cut to his budget would mean he would need to eliminate 33 of his agency’s 250 jobs. His staff already has been cut 25 percent in recent years.

“We provide core services that are part of the program integrity for all branches of state government,” Showalter wrote in a letter to Lanning.

Democrats complained that Lanning’s bill includes $170 million that may not be available. For instance, Republicans say the state will save $133 million with new tax software, but the Revenue Department cannot verify the claim.

The bill also would:

– Establish a pilot program to determine if it is feasible to pay non-profit organizations based on performance.

– Provide one-time bonuses to state workers who come up with ideas to save the state money.

– Allow counties to hire private accounting firms to audit their books, instead of the state auditor doing the work.

– Require agencies to carry out their jobs in the most cost-efficient way, including whether to  use state workers or hire outside firms.

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