Pawlenty cabinet gets a shake upby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
Gov. Pawlenty has reshuffled his cabinet. Two key commissioners are leaving and another has asked for a demotion. Pawlenty's commissioners of finance and natural resources are stepping down. The revenue commissioner asked for a demotion and has been replaced. The moves come just one month before Pawlenty is set to begin his second term.
St. Paul, Minn. — The shakeup was expected but the sheer number of changes came as a surprise. Pawlenty spokesman Alex Carey wouldn't say if the governor requested any resignations but says changes occur at the end of every four-year term.
"There's a certain amount of change and flux after a four-year term is served," Carey said. "A lot of people want to move out of the public sector into the private sector. A lot of people become complacent in their jobs and want to do new things so there's a certain degree of transition that takes place between both administrations."
One of those transitions is at the Department of Natural Resources. Gene Merriam has served as Pawlenty's DNR commissioner for four years and was a DFL state senator before that. Merriam had the difficult job of pleasing a number of interest groups that watch the DNR closely, including environmentalists, fisherman, snowmobile riders and hunters. He worked to manage the state parks, maintain the state's hunting and fishing regulations and manage the state's forests. Merriam says he decided to leave after Pawlenty won re-election last month.
"I just determined that I was going to tell the governor I would not be interested in serving another term as commissioner. It was a great opportunity and I'm honored to have the opportunity, but I just felt it was time to move on and try other things," Merriam said.
Pawlenty has not announced a replacement for Merriam. Merriam says the top priority for the next DNR commissioner will be to balance the concerns of ATV riders with conservationists who are concerned that four wheelers damage the land.
Lance Ness, president of the conservation group Fish and Wildlife Alliance, says he's disappointed to see Merriam's departure. He called him "a friend of fish and wildlife." Ness says he'd like to see the next commissioner continue to focus on clean water initiatives and work to find a permanent funding source for those programs.
"The next commissioner should include as one of his duties to promote Minnesota's natural resources. Really highlighting them and making sure they're good for future generations," he said.
Pawlenty will also have fresh faces in the key financial parts of his cabinet. Finance Commissioner Peggy Ingison is leaving her position to become chief financial officer of Minneapolis Public Schools. Ingison has served as commissioner since 2004 and was state budget director from 1996 until 2004. She was instrumental in helping Pawlenty balance a $4.5 billion budget deficit. The state's treasury now has a surplus.
Ingison will be replaced by Pawlenty's deputy chief of staff, Tom Hansen. Hansen joked that he'd be in trouble with the governor if the state's budget started running deficits again.
"We may argue on the policy in this state, but we never argue what the numbers mean and the one thing I will do is make sure that we will continue to continue the fine tradition of making sure that everyone agrees to the numbers," he said.
While Ingison and Merriam decided to leave their positions, Revenue Commissioner Dan Salomone says he asked for a demotion to deputy commissioner. Salomone, an expert in tax policy, says he never felt comfortable with the political duties that fall to a commissioner and wanted to focus more on policy.
"My background is pretty much in tax theory and the academic aspects of tax policy more so than the legislative aspects of getting tax positions enacted, so it's just a question of a better fit for me," he said.
Salomone will be replaced by Ward Einess, who was the acting commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development. Einess also served as a policy advisor to Pawlenty and worked for the Minnesota Business Partnership.
Einess says he thinks he'll be more comfortable than Salamone working with state lawmakers. He says his focus will be on property tax relief and improving Minnesota's business climate.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller says he's disappointed that both Ingison and Merriam are leaving. He says he's confident that his caucus will be able to work with Einess and Hansen, who have worked closely with Pawlenty.
"The most important thing is not where they come from but where they're going, and both of their work styles are collaborative with the Legislative process and I think that would be a good thing," Pogemiller said.
The recent moves come at a time when Pawlenty is going to face a Legislature that now will be ess friendly to his policies. Both chambers of the Legislature are now controlled by Democrats. DFLers retook the Minnesota House and extended their control of the Minnesota Senate in November.
- All Things Considered, 12/07/2006, 5:19 p.m.