ST. PAUL -- In the nine months since a budget-cutting Legislature ordered the state to stop hiring new consultants or state employees, at least 94 percent of all consulting contracts have won exemptions from the ban and hundreds of new workers have been hired, an Associated Press review has found.
Among the contracts approved since the freeze: $1,800 to give an assistant commissioner four hours of training on dealing with the media and $500 per hour to two speakers at a Department of Revenue management workshop.
State officials say they're coming up with the $75 million in cost savings that the freezes were meant to capture by having agencies cut costs in other ways.
But the figures anger lawmakers who pushed for the changes and hoped to reap savings beyond those goals. And though the dollars involved are small compared to the state's next predicted deficit of $4.56 billion, the failure to observe the freezes could support the case of budget cutters that there's still fat to be trimmed from state government.
Rep. Barb Goodwin, a Columbia Heights Democrat who originally suggested the consultant moratorium, questioned whether the administration is following the law.
"This was not the intention at all for them to just wave everything through," Goodwin said.
The consultant moratorium was put in place during the last round of budget balancing out of concern that more and more state money was being spent with little oversight. The ban included some narrow exceptions, including for those contracts considered necessary to provide basic state services or to protect the health, safety and welfare of employees and citizens. Those paid with federal funds were also exempted.
Yet in the last nine months, the Ventura administration turned down just 134 of 2,343 requests from agency commissioners to exempt contracts from the moratorium. Many of those turned down were later approved on appeal.
Kirsten Cecil, who oversaw the waiver process for the Department of Administration, stressed that most of the approved contracts were found to qualify for exemptions. And she said the numbers may be skewed because agency heads are seeking exemptions only for contracts they feel deserve it.
The same budget bill also demanded a halt on hiring new state employees except for those deemed necessary to perform essential state services. Since the ban was imposed in March, the state has hired 419 employees ranging from accountants to zoo keepers.
Each state agency was given authority to declare exemptions to the ban for their own employees, said Wendy Dwyer, spokeswoman for the Department of Employee Relations.
Rep. Phil Krinkie, who fought for both provisions as chairman of the House's government finance committee, said he takes the lack of action as proof Gov. Jesse Ventura's administration never took budget-cutting seriously. The bill was passed over Ventura's veto.
"It's obviously been a business-as-usual approach by the Ventura administration," he said.
The Ventura administration opted soon after the budget bill was crafted to divvy up the $35 million in expected savings from the consulting moratorium in cuts across agencies, rather than try to deal with the figure by scrutinizing contracts.
With six months left in the fiscal year, the Ventura administration has only turned back about $5 million worth of the contracts, according to the AP review.
Officials with the Finance Department did much the same with the hiring freeze, getting the expected $40 million in savings by ordering departments to find spending cuts up front.
Based on the AP review, among the contracts for services that were given exemptions and thus determined to be "necessary, as opposed to convenient":
* A $1,800 arrangement to provide four hours of media training to a single assistant commissioner with the Department of Human Services. The Department of Administration employee who first reviewed the contract, Gerald Joyce, denied the request, noting in the margins "Cost of $450 per hour appears too excessive to justify." The contract was approved on appeal by Administration Commissioner David Fisher.
* A $15,000 contract for a New Jersey man to provide one day of training on "communicating risk" for employees at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The man, Peter Sandman, lists his primary specialty as quelling public anger over perceived hazards.
* A $1,500 payment to a University of Minnesota professor described as a "noted technology futurist" to make one speech at a forum for Department of Natural Resources employees.
* A $63,000 contract to have a Minnesota representative in Japan promote tourism. By comparison, the Ventura administration has only one direct representative in Washington to lobby the federal government.
* Arrangements of $500-per-hour for two speakers, a former Ecolab vice president and a consultant specializing in "dealing with ambiguity," to speak at a management workshop for the Department of Revenue. The arrangement was $3,100 for about 3 hours each.
* A $48,000 payment to an engineering firm for planning work on a long-stalled effort to attract a racetrack to the Iron Range near Hibbing. After the contract was denied, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Agency Commissioner John Swift sent e-mails defending the timeliness of the project by saying the work had to start immediately before a new administration could review the project.
According to research by the legislative auditor's office, which is investigating the state's use of consultant contracts, the state spent about $350 million on so-called professional and technical contracts in 2001. That's a 45 percent increase over four years earlier. Goodwin's own figures, spanning the Ventura administration and including a wider range of state agencies, found a 63 percent increase, up to $860 million.
"And they couldn't hold it down for six months," Goodwin said.
The waivers, she said, were intended to be granted only in cases where no other state employees are available to do the same work. She said in most cases, agencies don't try to find them.
Goodwin knows something about the issue. She was a leader of the House research staff in the early 1990s when she discovered abuses in the state's contracts for professional services that ranged from nepotism to lack of oversight.
She's also concerned that the per-hour costs of the contracts are inappropriate.
The $1,800 contract for media training was to provide four hours of training in July to Brian Osberg, assistant commissioner for health care in the Department of Human Services. In explanation, DHS officials said: "The department does not employ media consultants who could provide Assistant Commissioner Osberg with the necessary training to tackle the hard-hitting interviews that have become routine duties for agency officials."
The trainer was Bob Aronson, a former journalist and spokesman for Gov. Rudy Perpich. He was recommended based on past training to other agency officials, according to the documents. In their appeal, DHS officials explained that the training had actually already been conducted before the waiver was sought.
"So, they droped (sic) the ball ..." one official explained in the appeal.
A search of the print media archive Lexis-Nexis turned up no examples of Osberg being quoted. He did not return calls for comment.
Agency spokeswoman Terry Gunderson said the training is commonly provided to officials at Osberg's level, and she defended the rate.
Among the exemptions to the hiring freeze, the largest category was for natural resource workers (56), followed by general office workers (47) and large numbers of parks workers, tax specialists, "agriculture technicians" and grounds workers.
Krinkie said lawmakers meant the total $75 million savings target as a floor, not a ceiling. "From the administration's perspective," he said, "it obviously was the ceiling."
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