ST. PAUL -- Combining state agencies, or at least some functions, is one of the debates as the Minnesota Legislature enters its last month of session.
A Senate economic development committee Wednesday passed, with Democrat and Republican support, a proposal designed to combine the state Department of Employment and Economic Development with the Labor and Industry Department. Earlier, senators passed a plan to study combining natural resources functions state and local governments provide, a bill authored by Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji.
With the backing of the state's two largest unions, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, told committee members that his bill would establish committees with agency employees, legislative appointees and agency managers to look into the two-agency merger.
While the bill calls for the merger, it could happen only if next year's Legislature and the governor approve the move.
Pogemiller also wants to remove some governor appointees from the payroll.
A second part of the bill requires the state to conduct thorough cost-benefit studies when considering spending at least $100,000 with private businesses to make sure outsourcing work is needed.
Pogemiller said he is convinced that the committees will recommend that one agency is better than two. Committee Chairman David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, was not convinced.
Tomassoni said he sees a possibility that the panels could come back and recommend that the economic development and industry-labor agencies be broken into more than two. But, he said, it is a good idea to study agencies.
Other senators, from both parties, agreed that it would be valuable to look at how state government could be reorganized to better serve Minnesotans.
Pogemiller said he would have proposed a more dramatic change than a study, but said he probably could not get enough votes for that.
There is no House equivalent to Pogemiller's bill, but he said he is dedicated to the concept and will try to fit his bill into negotiations with the House in an attempt to get it passed yet this year.
He has support from the state's worker unions.
"We believe workers will embrace change if they are given (job) security," said Eiliot Siede of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Siede said if employees are involved in reorganizing state agencies, there is less chance workers will lose jobs. In greater Minnesota in particular, he added, jobs are scarce and "adding more people to the unemployment rolls is not the answer."
The union official hinted at what he thinks the employee committee would conclude: "We need less people at the top and more front-line workers."
One of Pogemiller's motivations for picking economic development and industry agencies to merge is because he does not think the state has done a good job of dealing with economic conditions, such as producing jobs.
An unrelated bill that already has passed the Senate would bring together many people who deal with state and local natural resources-related agencies to recommend changes.
"Countless local citizens have brought up the problem of overlap and confusion in the way we manage our natural resources," said Olson. "The permitting process is not coordinated between different entities. Responsibilities for providing services - such as helping a lake association establish a lake management plan - are not clearly delineated.
"The list of management issues I've heard about from constituents goes on and on. We should be able to streamline the process, reduce confusion and save costs while doing a better job of providing necessary environmental protections."
Olson's concept is folded into a larger bill that is headed for a conference committee that will work out differences between House and Senate versions. The House has not voted on Olson's plan.
While the Pogemiller bill is aimed at merging two agencies, Olson's proposal has no predetermined outcome.
Her study committees would include people who use natural resources programs and those who offer them, including state, local and tribal governments.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.