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GOP Rep. Keith Downey preaching ‘business consultant’ philosophy for state government

He seems nonplused that he’s become a lightning rod for trying to rein in the size of government: “We don’t have an option. We either pursue these things or have endless proposals for raising taxes going forward.”

Rep. Keith Downey
Rep. Keith Downey

In just his second term as a member of the House, Rep. Keith Downey has become the idea man of the Republican caucus.

When asked about reforms that Republicans have in mind in their budget proposal, House Speaker Kurt Zellers laughs and suggests that reporters speak with Downey.

“He has about 40 bills” pertaining to reform, Zellers said.

Most of the Edina Republican’s reforms — covering everything from “downsizing” the state workforce to slashing the number of cabinet-level positions from 22 to 9 — put Downey at odds with labor and environmental organizations.

Downey seems nonplused that he’s become a lightning rod of this session.

“I’m realistic about what can be absorbed in this session” Downey said in an interview. “But we don’t have an option. We either pursue these things or have endless proposals for raising taxes going forward.”

Downey replaced ‘Override Six’ Republican
Downey preceded, by one term, the Republican wave of fiscal conservatives who swept into the Legislature in November. He drove nine-term Edina legislator Ron Erhardt out of the party in 2010, winning endorsement over Erhardt, who had been among “the Override Six” Republicans who didn’t support Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a transportation bill that included a hike in the gasoline tax.

Downey says that the override had little to do with his wresting the endorsement from Erhardt. In fact, he said, he had secured enough support months before Erhardt’s override vote to secure endorsement.

“My state representative [Erhardt] was more a part of the problem than part of the solution,” said Downey of knocking out the longtime legislator who later tried — and failed — to win back the seat first as an Independent then a DFLer.

Although Downey’s proposals have enraged many at the Capitol, he typically is a picture of calm, both in words and actions.

He typically parries attacks that he’s anti-labor and anti-government with such corporate buzzwords and phrases as “right-sizing,” “serving people, not the bureaucracy,” “redesign” and, of course, “reform.” All of those terms reflect his background — before winning his legislative seat, he was a management consultant.

Downey has backed off a “right to work” bill that he had proposed early in the session, although he noted that Rep. Steve Drazkowski still is pushing a similar bill.

Like most in his caucus, he believes that government must emulate the private sector.

“The private sector has made every one of the gains that we [the Republican caucus] are proposing,” he said. “Every idea we have has been done many times — outside of government. It just boils down to the fact that we know that the status quo is not working.”

Downey insists that none of this is personal. Even the proposal to reduce the government workforce by 15 percent is not meant, he said, to impugn the value of government workers.

He points out that he’s not necessarily calling for draconian layoffs. Rather, he believes most of the workforce reduction can come through attrition and by not filling current vacancies.

In time, he believes public workers will be “motivated” by the various reforms he has proposed.

And how does that work?

“I think we have a chance to create new workforce incentives to drive the change,” said Downey, again sounding like the corporate consultant he is. “My own belief is that most people are highly motivated to be part of something excellent. The way it is now, the state rewards seniority and educational background. I would like to see government implement private-sector bonus plans for performance.”

State unions say workforce already among nation’s leanest
lState worker unions long have pointed out, however, that the Minnesota workforce already is one of the more efficient in the country; that Minnesota has far fewer workers serving far more people than most states.

Many of the Downey proposals will be getting more attention — and drawing more fire — in coming weeks. The Republicans’ all-cuts budget plan, to date, is filled with only vague promises of reform. As the budget process moves forward, those pledges will have to become much more specific.

It’s not yet clear when — or if — some of Downey’s most dramatic ideas — cutting the number of cabinet positions, for example — will get full airings on the legislative floors.

In his grand plan, various departments — the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources, for example — could be “collapsed” into one agency. That would not only reduce the number of bureaucrats, Republicans believe, but, more importantly, cut what they see as overlapping regulations that they believe frustrate business growth.

Zellers has said that all legislative focus in the next two weeks will be on the budget. Debates on “policy” matters will be put off until after March 25, when Republicans plan to introduce their budget.

Are Downey’s ideas budget-related or policy discussions?

Downey says the reform ideas include both policy and cost.

“We have the same challenges as Wisconsin,” he said. “There has to be reform.”

He said that he’s had conversation with Gov. Mark Dayton’s staff on a number of his reform ideas and, so far at least, there has been no outright rejection of many of those ideas.

Likely, that’s because in part Downey mostly has stayed away from the specifics of what programs would be cut under his proposals and which people would be laid off.

“We’re only the catalyst for change,” Downey said of the lack of specifics in his proposals. “What I’ve tried to do in these bills is approach things with a high level of design statements but not go too deep with suggestions as to how they should be accomplished.”

Of course, the bottom line is the same: They serve an all-cuts budget approach to settling the state’s budget woes.

And that all approach highlights the basic divide between Dayton and the Republican-dominated Legislature. The governor does believe that if it is not starved, government can deliver services that both help the neediest and the state’s struggling economy. Republicans insist that government is merely a large part of the state’s economic problems.

“There’s always a risk that nothing will happen,” Downey said. “But I have expectations for results.”

The last session, under Pawlenty and a DFL Legislature, was, in Downey’s mind, “wasted time.” Federal stimulus money was used to fill the budget holes and, he believes, perpetuate a system that no longer works.

“These aren’t just my ideas,” he said. “They represent the entire caucus.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.