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At Issue: Leading by example

Published (1/23/2009)
By Sue Hegarty
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Some vending machines in the State Office Building are fitted with an energy-saving device.As Minnesotans struggle to save money and cut expenses at home and on the job, many might wonder what their elected officials are doing as stewards of their tax dollars to model smart spending and careful conservation at their own “House.”

The State of Minnesota employs 134 state representatives, 67 senators and one governor, in addition to more than 50,000 state workers. Focus the lens on any of these facets of government, and it shines a light both on areas of success and areas where there is room for improvement.

It starts at the top

In a bipartisan move, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle crossed party and state lines Jan. 13 by directing their respective state agencies to draft cooperative work agreements. For example, the two states could leverage lower pricing by placing larger orders together. The joint purchasing power is aimed at avoiding nearly $5 billion deficits in each state. Agency heads have until Feb. 27 to report their suggestions.

Hours after the duo held press conferences, Pawlenty gave a suggestion of his own: state workers should accept a two-year wage freeze.

Legislation is in the works to curb misuse of public funds by government workers, too.

Sponsored by Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley), HF7 would toughen penalties for state employees who misappropriate public funds, to making the crime punishable by up to one year in jail and a $3,000 fine. It awaits action by the House State and Local Government Operations Reform, Technology and Elections Committee. A companion bill, SF107, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope), awaits action by the Senate State and Local Government Operations and Oversight Committee.


At the start of the 2009 session, House Republicans asked fellow legislators to lead by example and amend the temporary joint rules to lower legislators’ per diem reimbursements.

Instead, House Majority Leader Tony Sertich (DFL-Chisholm) referred it to the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee, which passed several other resolutions regarding House member allocations on Jan. 7. For example, reimbursement for telephone, Internet and other communication expenses were cut from $125 to $75 per month.

When written communication is preferred to electronic, there is the option of using personal stationery. But before returning legislators place their stationery order, they may want to see what’s left from last session. Apparently there are “closets filled” with outdated letterhead, according to Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park).

“What happens is people order new stationery when they’re on new committees,” Hortman said. She suggested that members omit their committees on stationery and simply include their name and district.

Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL-St. Paul) urges members to reduce postage costs by using more electronic mail.

“In my district, there’s a high premium placed on electronic communication,” she said.

House members are also encouraged to use a postage meter for large mailings; however, they may ask for rolls of stamps “for convenience” for smaller mailings, said House Controller Paul Schweizer. As a whole, House members never use the entire postage allowance, and if they did, Schweizer said it would only add to the deficit because he takes that into account when he prepares the budget.


The paper trail in state government is enormous. There are green sheets for this and yellow sheets for that. Paper size varies from standard 8.5 x 11 inch sheets to legal-size 8.5 x 14 inch sheets. But that is changing, according to House Chief Sergeant-at-Arms Sandra Dicke, whose duties include monitoring House paper use.

“Paper use has gone down considerably. So many things that we used to have hard copy for — meeting notices, bills, journals, anything you wanted — is now online,” Dicke said.

Two House committees are testing a new policy that, if successful, may be expanded next year. They are printing reports on standard-size paper rather than legal size. Standard paper is less expensive and the copy machines used for printing standard size paper are less expensive than multi-size paper printers.

Paper cutbacks transcend the boardroom to the bathroom at the State Office Building. Those who drop by the first-floor bathrooms can contribute to the cause when drying their hands. The Dyson Airblade hand dryers in both the men’s and women’s restrooms blast air at 400 mph. The 12-second drying time is estimated to reduce energy use by up to 80 percent over typical dryers, still used on other floors. The paper towel dispensers are still available, but not recommended.

“They’re inefficient. You try to pull one down and eight come down,” Dicke said. As older hand dryers wear out, they will be replaced with the energy-saving style, she said.

The three R’s

In the basement supply room of the State Office Building, shelves are filled with used office supplies. Need a three-ring binder? They’ve got it. Need an electrical cord? Just ask.

Previous policymakers passed legislation that requires state workers to reduce, reuse and recycle through the Resource Recovery Program. Waste amounts are carefully monitored. For example, occupants of the State Office Building generated 26,000 more pounds of waste between July and December 2008 than they did during the same six months of 2007, according to David Fielding, director of the Department of Administration’s Plant Management Division.

“While an increase in total waste is not necessarily good news, the fact that 98 percent of that increase was recycled waste is another instance of leading by example,” Fielding said.

The program’s Web site offers ways that employees can save money or acquire used government-issued goods.

Rep. Brita Sailer (DFL-Park Rapids) said she is preparing to publish an electronic newsletter that will remind House staff and visitors about ways to curb expenses in the Capitol Complex. She expects to distribute the first issue within the next week to Republican and DFL members, staff, visitors and lobbyists.

State employees who already adhere to the three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle — don’t go unnoticed. Each year, the most efficient employee groups from around the state are recognized at the MnGREAT (Minnesota Government Reaching Environmental Achievements Together) Awards. A list of past recipients, such as the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and the Rice Creek Watershed District, is available online at

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