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House Republicans want to slash state government spending

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Rep. Joyce Peppin
Majority leader Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015 during the House session at the State Capitol.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file

Minnesota House Republicans are moving forward with a budget bill that cuts spending for state government operations by more than $67 million.

Despite a $1.9 billion state budget surplus, Republicans aim to trim department budgets, freeze the number of state workers and limit commissioner salaries.

The House State Government Omnibus Bill would spend more than $902 million over the next two years. That's nearly 7 percent less than current spending, a reduction that triggered harsh criticism today from Gov. Mark Dayton and House Democrats.

One of the proposed cuts is $3 million in the House's own budget. During Wednesday's floor session, state Rep. Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul, said he was shocked by the willingness of Republicans to cut legislative staff during a time of surplus.

"Why would you treat people like that?" Lillie asked. "I just think it's ridiculous. It's really not Minnesotan."

House Majority leader Joyce Peppin defended the cost-cutting.

"We need to make sure we treat the taxpayers of Minnesota correctly too," said Peppin, R-Rogers. "Our staff does do a fabulous job. There's no doubt about it. But that doesn't mean we should never ever look at our staff complement and figure how many people we need on staff."

The House bill makes similar reductions across state government, including the budgets of the state Senate, all the constitutional offices and most state departments, boards and commissions.

The bill limits the total number of full-time state employees to 36,211. That's 203 fewer positions than the current workforce.

State Rep. Sarah Anderson, chair of the House State Government Finance Committee, said the bill "right-sizes" government.

"I think what we're trying to do here is just give confidence to Minnesotans that we're doing our due diligence and tightening our belt just like they've had to tighten their belt in their family budgets," said Anderson, R-Plymouth.

Dayton would see a 6.5 percent cut in his office budget. But that's not his biggest complaint.

"These antics are just clearly to me not about making government work better," the governor said. "They're just about trying to muck things up and try to make it worse."

Dayton used part of a lengthy news conference to bash several provisions in the Republican bill aimed at the executive branch. He's particularly concerned about the rollback in salary for the chairman of the Metropolitan Council, an organization that manages bus, rail, housing, wastewater and other services for the Twin Cities.

Under the House bill, the chairman's salary could be cut to part-time, a reversal of Dayton's recent decision to make it a full-time position.

"If somebody else in the Legislature wants to run the executive branch of state government, they should run for governor," Dayton said. "They'll have an opportunity in the future to do so. But I got elected to do this job, and I'm not going to tolerate people coming in there with no advance warning, no offer to discuss anything.

"There are other features to the Met Council, which are somewhat legitimate for Legislative consideration. But I will not support or sign a bill that has anything tampering with the Met Council under these circumstances."

The governor appoints members to the Metropolitan Council. The House bill would require the appointees to be currently elected city or county officials. The council, rather than the governor, would then pick the chair.

Anderson defended the changes.

"We're just trying to just add greater transparency by having elected individuals that are serving on the Met Council, so that there is some kind of recourse for the citizens," she said. "I never thought I would hear it, but going door knocking here this last fall, I had several folks that said 'I'm frustrated by the fact that the Met Council is unelected, and I have nowhere to go when I'm concerned about what they're doing.'"

The bill also includes a repeal of the campaign subsidy for political candidates, a restructuring of state minority councils and a new commission on surrogate parenting.

It also would require the state Office of the Legislative Auditor to estimate the cost of proposed legislation. That job is currently done by Minnesota Management and Budget and other executive branch agencies.