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

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.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/14/2011 - 10:48 am.

    Regulations are not promulgated at random by bored legislators or bureaucrats trying to fill the time time until 5 pm rolls around.

    They were created in response to a perceived wrong that was pursued doggedly by some party long enough to hound the legislator or bureaucrat into creating a new law or regulation that changed the way things are done from the “way that they always were done”.

    People and companies have been and are very ingenious in their skirting of existing laws and regulations.

    Look to who wants to abandon regulations. Ask, “Why?” Ask, “Who benefits?”. Ask, “Who could be harmed?”

  2. Submitted by Rod Loper on 03/14/2011 - 11:37 am.

    Downey cloaks the mailed fist of the oligarchy
    in managementspeak. It is something to behold.
    He really loves the workers. Gottwald really loves the sick and the poor too. But they hate
    taxing business and the well off a heckuva lot

  3. Submitted by Daryl Gerke on 03/14/2011 - 11:47 am.

    Two quick questions:

    First, has Rep. Downey actually ever started and/or run a business?

    Second, has Rep. Downey actually ever improved things for his clients (in a measurable way)as a “management consultant?”

    In short — does he have a track record, or is he just another platitude spouting (right-sizing, redesign, gag…)politician?

    Just curious.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/14/2011 - 12:12 pm.

    Guys like Downey are the worse products of parasitic capitalism. These pinhead management consultants will factor heavily in the postmortem of America. Their going to do for the public sector what they did for the auto, financial, and housing industries. Great.

  5. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 03/14/2011 - 12:45 pm.

    Has Downey ever run a government agency before? Running a government and running a business are entirely different. First, the main aim of a business is profit. The main aim of government agencies is to work for the people of the state–building roads and bridges, maintaining order, helping those who cannot help themselves, and doing everything possible to create jobs. None of these are for profit and all of them help create jobs. Tax cuts do not.

  6. Submitted by myles spicer on 03/14/2011 - 12:49 pm.

    Very simply…government is NOT a business. It has different goals, different objectives, and a different mission. The analogy is false. The Fire Department is not a profit center. The police do not “make money”. The teachers are not profit generators.

    Attempting to apply the goals of business which is to MAKE MONEY) to services government renders silly. Sure, we all want cost effective government. We all object to waste. Lean is good. But we also want efficient services to protect ourselves, our property, and educate our young and provide effective adminstrative services. That…is not “business”, it is service.

  7. Submitted by Don Frey on 03/14/2011 - 12:55 pm.

    What I want from the Republicans is SPECIFICS – how the various state services will be delivered, what services will be eliminated, and how cuts made will be fair to all. I want to know where the money will come from to fix potholes in our streets and highways, which are supposed to be funded by the automobile sales tax and the gasoline tax. I certainly recognize that we cannot continue as we have, because for the last 8 years the budget was balanced by accounting tricks and withholding payments form local governments and school districts. Those tricks have resulted in much higher taxes despite the “no new taxes” pledge so popular with the Republicans. It’s time to put a stop to the games and get serious about deciding what services the state must deliver and how they can be paid for. And everyone, individuals and businesses, must be held accountable for their fair share of the tax burden.

  8. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 03/14/2011 - 12:56 pm.

    According to Downey’s Facebook page, he worked for an accounting firm, Unisys and Epic Systems before becoming “a consultant for state and local governments on strategy, operations and technology.”

    Hmmm. Reinventing government, not business, seems to be his business.

  9. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 03/14/2011 - 01:16 pm.

    It’s interesting that Downey doesn’t use the term business, but rather “private sector.” That’s crafty, because business is what got us into the recession. It’s who we taxpayers bailed out. One only has to read the papers, MinnPost, etc. to know that banks and businesses are not good models. Look who the SEC and the FBI are going after lately. Look at the the fines businesses and investors are paying lately, not to mention those in the private sector facing or enduring jail sentences.

    What Downey and his MN and Wisconsin and right wing colleagues are really doing is attacking government and trying to lower wages for ordinary folks. And to what end? Don’t they want their streets plowed, potholes fixed, and airports controlled? It seems they are bent on making the whole world like the “third world,” where rich and often autocrats reign.

  10. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 03/14/2011 - 01:19 pm.

    The irony of it is that even if you grant them that it’s acceptable to run government “as a business”, even then they fail at it because they’re so busy counting this year’s beans they can’t be bother to invest in the future (eg, education, infrastructure). It’s like GM deciding to stop buying steel to deal with its short-term budget shortfall.

  11. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/14/2011 - 01:50 pm.

    A lot of what state government does is distribute benefits. The thought does occur to me that if state employees are more efficient, do their jobs better, they will distribute more in benefits, not less.

  12. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/14/2011 - 05:45 pm.

    For an accurate, if humorous perspective on the usefulness of “business” consultants (who have damaged and destroyed entire companies by “right sizing” their most important and necessary divisions right out of existence), just do an internet search for these words:

    farmer consultant joke

    The “joke” you’ll find tells you all you need to know about how useful Mr. Downey’s approach will be.

  13. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/14/2011 - 10:53 pm.

    Michigan’s Governor Zealot is shepherding legislation through its right-wing-majority legislature that would “help” local units of government recover from budget shortfalls by having the State Treasurer fire local mayors, school boards and whoever else allows a budget shortfall to develop.

    The Treasurer would then appoint a business manager to take over that city or county or school board and return it to fiscal health. I guess it has to be someone with “turnaround skills.”

    Local elections would become meaningless if state government can void them at will. It’s all part of this terribly ugly thing that’s going on.

  14. Submitted by bernie hesse on 03/15/2011 - 07:24 am.

    What bothers me the most about Re. Downey is his total lack of connection to the collective good and his allegiance to individualism and apparent go it alone mentality. When he mentions doing it like the private sector- does he mean Enron? Goldman Sachs? Not sure, but for many of us who have worked in business and have represented workers it is frightening to see this libertarian, technocrat driving the bus on anti-worker legislation.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/15/2011 - 09:00 am.

    This is the same old crap Republicans and neo-liberals have been peddling for decades. They’ve always promised more efficient government and never never never delivered anything but less government or more expensive and less efficient privatized government.

    Even if you assume they’re being genuine (probably a silly assumption) there are two stubborn facts that always crash the business efficiency party. The first is the simple fact that they government is not that inefficient in the first place. Government inefficiency is an article of faith, not a data driven conclusion. The VA, Medicare and Medicaid, and the direct government student loan program, are all more efficient than their private sector counter parts, and that’s just for starters. You can always make something more efficient but you’re not going find hundred of millions or billions of dollars of inefficiencies in the State Government. The second problem with the efficiency mantra is that efficiency may increase productivity, but it doesn’t necessarily decrease costs. Efficiency isn’t necessarily cheap, especially if it accomplished with technology. Most of us realized this over a decade ago when we used computers to improve our productivity only to realize that constant upgrades, security, hardware replacement, and training ate up the savings we were supposed to realize.

  16. Submitted by Carol Flynn on 03/15/2011 - 12:59 pm.

    How many jobs does his proposal creat? That was what the purpose right? Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.
    Do we know what companies Mr. Downey consulted with and where they are today?

  17. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 03/16/2011 - 02:39 pm.

    Thank you Myles!!!

    Any Management Consultant who thinks private sector principles can automatically be applied to the public sector pretty much convinces me the guy ain’t much of a Management Consultant.

  18. Submitted by Robyn R on 07/28/2011 - 02:00 pm.

    Let me pose this question regarding the whole idea of running government like individuals run their household budgets: if someone in your family were ill or disabled and you need to balance your household budget, would you take the cuts only approach and throw that ill person under the bus, or would you look for other sources of revenue? In my family we do not take the draconian approach of cuts only. We look for ways to raise revenue as well including taking a second job. What would Keith Downey do?

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