Commissioners set stakes for upcoming budget battle

Sitting in a room full of reporters, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans' message to his boss about most Republican's budget bills was clear: Veto them.

As spring blooms and the Legislature's focus turns to finalizing a new, two-year state budget, Gov. Mark Dayton has increasingly leaned on his cabinet to make the public case for his vision of Minnesota - and against the budget cuts and major tax relief Republicans in charge at the Legislature have lined up. His commissioners have used a flurry of press conferences, news releases and stops across the state to broadcast their disdain for GOP budget bills, often drawing the ire of Republican leaders.

Dayton's top tax official recently warned about delays to tax returns if the GOP follows through with heavy cuts to her agency. The commissioner overseeing public health care programs has crisscrossed the state, highlighting potentially painful cuts to mental health care and other services.

But few have been as visible or as vocal as Frans, who has tried to leverage his stature as the state's top budget wonk into a powerful voice of caution to Republicans who control the Legislature. It's a new role for the commissioner, who runs an office best known for signing the 35,000-plus paychecks of state employees and cranking out the twice-annual economic projections that guide lawmakers' work.

"We really wanted to go on the record," Frans said. "We want to make it very clear to the public what our positions are on the budgets."

Frans came to the budget office in 2015 after four years as head of the Department of Revenue. With a background as a tax attorney and a short stint as president of a manufacturing and distributing company, he built good will with lawmakers from both sides as a no-nonsense financial expert.

After weathering criticism for years that Dayton hasn't engaged enough in the Legislature's work, Frans said the governor pushed him and his fellow commissioners to get out and show why they believe the Republican bills aren't good for Minnesota.

Frans said the Republican-led Legislature has created a drastically different view of how to lead Minnesota forward. He - and his boss - worries those changes could harm the financial stability of the state that has emerged since lawmakers dug the state out from the $6 billion deficit in 2011.

Dayton's cabinet may be the governor's best path to influence a stiffly opposed Legislature, with no Democratic allies in power to shape the budget that may hit his desk. But as the budget-crafting process starts to turn from legislative floor debates to private negotiations with Dayton to strike deals, there are few public signs Frans and other commissioners' public pleas have paid off.

The governor's $46 billion budget proposal would increase spending for early childhood education, create a public option for health insurance and boost environmental protections. But Republicans -especially the more conservative House - want to slash funds from a number of Dayton's flagship initiatives. Both chambers are aiming for major tax cuts that make Dayton squeamish, while also shrinking health services, state government and spending on environmental programs.

The commissioners' hard-nosed approach may make budget negotiations tougher in the long run, said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. A top Republican on health care issues, Benson said the commissioners' methods often feel more like a public relations campaign than a serious attempt at negotiation.

Still, the fact that commissioners are involved early in the process will be helpful in avoiding situations like the 2011 government shutdown, she said.

"If they come to the table and the governor gives them the authority to negotiate. I think having commissioners engaged will help the budget process," she said.

Republican Rep. Matt Dean, of Dellwood, hinted at some frustration in dealing with the commissioners as he helped craft the House's health and human services bill. He said both the committee and commissioners often struggled to agree on spending cuts in the ballooning health services budget.

In the end, Dayton's officials may have achieved a different goal in their early involvement.

With five weeks left in the session, Frans said he and fellow commissioners have worked in part to lay out the stakes for where Dayton will and won't go in budget negotiations.

"This is the time, as they say, where things get real," he said.