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Sunset Commission could determine fates of state boards, agencies

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The future of 25 state boards, councils and agencies is at the mercy of a group of 12 policy makers called the Minnesota Sunset Commission.

The group reviews the work, mission and goals of agencies across state government. The commission came out of last summer's agreement to end the government shutdown. Other states have embarked on similar efforts to save money.

But the odds for success are against the Sunset Commission, one consultant said.

The commission's role is simple: examine every government agency and determine whether it should continue operating. It is to stop government from running on autopilot, said Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer,R-Big Lake, who chairs the Sunset Commission.

"Any part of government should be periodically reviewed," Kiffmeyer said. "Because I think otherwise, when you keep going and going, that's when you can stray from the original mission and forget about what is the purpose."

Six Democrat and six Republican appointees of Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders make up the Sunset Commission. In February, the commission will submit a report to the Legislature outlining which boards, commissions and agencies should continue. The governor has been skeptical of many efforts that made broad cuts to government, but he characterized the Sunset Commission as a worthwhile exercise.

"Having appointed people to every board now over the past year, there are many of them where there aren't even applicants and we have to do some outreach to get applicants," Dayton said. "Some of them may have outserved their usefulness and some of them could probably be consolidated and more effective that way." 

But William Eggers, a corporate consultant who worked for a similar commission in Texas isn't as optimistic.

"Your chances of succeeding, I'm going to be frank with you, are not very high," he said.

Eggers told the Minnesota Sunset Commission last month that similar efforts in several other states failed because they didn't take their jobs seriously enough.

"The one thing I will guarantee you is that without resources from a staff perspective, this will not succeed."

That's not a good sign for the Minnesota commission, which has a few legislative staffers working part-time on the effort. The commission is asking government agencies to submit reports about what they do and then commission members will decide their fate. 

No one on the board indicates whether they will recommend any cuts this year. But behind the scenes, agencies and their advocates have been working to make their case. 

For example, people supporting the Council on Black Minnesotans sent an email calling on others to attend a Sunset Commission hearing to show support for the council. Rosella Collins-Puoch is the vice-chair of the Council on Black Minnesotans. She doesn't think the Sunset Commission will try to eliminate her organization.

"People understand that communities of color still have many many challenges and there has to be some entities that ensure Africans and African Americans are treated equitably in the state of Minnesota," Collins-Puoch said.

Kiffmeyer suggested the state could save money by asking boards and commissions to consolidate what is known as back office services. That includes human resources, information technology services and office management. Others, like Sen. Mike Parry,R-Waseca, said the Sunset Commission may look to consolidate agencies that are duplicating work. He said no agency should consider itself on the chopping block but said officials had better be prepared to answer how they're spending public money.

"If they are out of the chute worried about not being in existence, that might lead some to believe that maybe they shouldn't have been there in the first place. That's why I'm hoping that all of the boards and agencies realize this is not and never was intended to be any kind of witch-hunt," Parry said.

The Sunset Commission's recommendations aren't final. The Legislature could vote to keep some agencies open that the commission wants to close. And if it does put an agency, board, or commission out of business the state department of administration has to ensure that laws continue to be enforced.