Sviggum to leave House; appointed labor commissioner

Speaker Steve Sviggum
Steve Sviggum has served in the Minnesota House since winning his seat in 1978. He presided over the chamber for eight years as speaker, until Democrats won a majority in the 2006 election.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Sviggum will lead a low-profile department that oversees workers compensation and workplace safety issues.

Gov. Pawlenty picked Sviggum as his replacement for Scott Brener, who is stepping down as commissioner of labor and industry next month to join an insurance company.

Sviggum is serving his 15th term in the Minnesota House, and was speaker of the House for eight years. He worked closely with Pawlenty, who was House majority leader for four of those years. Sviggum lost his leadership post when Democrats won the majority last fall.

In a news release, Pawlenty said Sviggum is "known for his ability to work with and listen to people on all sides of an issue." Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, says Sviggum is a good fit for the job.

"[Pawlenty] certainly has picked somebody who has absolutely no history of supporting labor or working people."

"Speaker Sviggum, in 1985 and 1986, chaired the unemployment insurance and workers comp division in the House of Representatives. He's worked on issues that affected business and employees over his almost 30 years in the House of Representatives," says McClung. "He's somebody who is energetic, who's well known, who's very approachable. And he's somebody who brings balance to this job."

Sviggum's new job comes with a big boost in salary. Sviggum made just over $31,000 plus expenses as a legislator. The salary for commissioners is more than $108,000.

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Still, Sviggum says accepting the job was a tough decision.

"A change in life is always tough, I would guess. You always look forward to new opportunities if it always means stepping out of your comfort zone, whatever that comfort zone might be. So, it was a little bit of a tough decision," Sviggum says.

"But on the other hand, I had that great opportunity and the privilege to serve the citizens of Minnesota and the Legislature now for a number of years," he added. "And I think this is a good way to enhance and build upon that." Sviggum, who's a farmer and former math teacher, says he'll tackle his new job with energy and fairness. But some critics aren't so sure.

"He certainly has picked somebody who has absolutely no history of supporting labor or working people. So, it's going to be interesting to see how he runs the department," says Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisolm, who is among the DFLers questioning the appointment.

Tomassoni is a strong labor supporter. But he doesn't think Sviggum shares a similar commitment.

"We just passed some some laws about allowing the department to police prevailing wage laws to make sure prevailing wage is paid on construction sites. And Representative Sviggum, in the past, has opposed all prevailing wage laws. So, it will be interesting to see what happens," says Tomassoni.

Tomassoni expects his fellow senators will have some tough questions for Sviggum when they eventually take up his confirmation as commissioner.

The appointment creates a vacancy in House District 28B, which includes portions of Goodhue, Wabasha and Winona counties.

The governor's spokesman, Brian McClung, says Pawlenty will call for a special election, which could be scheduled in about a month.