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After botched staff firing, assertive Commission members push their independence

Rep. Tom Hackbarth held the gavel — but not the votes — today’s executive committee of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, did not look like a happy man.

Yes, as he pointed out, he did hold the gavel as the executive committee of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources met this morning. But he didn’t hold the votes.

That meant that the executive committee — and, later, the full committee — was able to move forward in clarifying its position as an autonomous body that is not under the control of the Legislative Coordinating Commission.

This clarification is important, if you recall the firing — and, later, the un-firing — of Susan Thornton as director of the LCCMR. She was fired during the Christmas holidays, apparently at the urging of Republican House leadership, who wanted the commission “to go in a different direction.”

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Hackbarth was a part of that “different direction” push.

But a few days after she was fired, likely at the nod of House Speaker Kurt Zellers, she was un-fired when it apparently was decided that only the LCCMR has the right to hire and fire its director.

This morning, Hackbarth didn’t want to go over that bumbled effort to fire Thornton.

“We’re moving on,” said Hackbarth, who is the co-chair of the LCCMR.

But members of the executive board — including co-chair Nancy Gibson, a citizen member of the board — was among those who didn’t think it was quite time to simply forget the recent past.

Along with another citizen member, Jeff Broberg, she kept pushing for the commission to receive clarification from the LCC just who’s in charge.

“I want a clear direction,” Gibson said. “Just putting things behind us doesn’t tell us where we’re going to go. … We’ve been under a cloud.”

“We’re not going to turn this into that kind of meeting,” Hackbarth said. “When you’re the chairman, when you have the gavel, you can have that discussion.”

That, however, turned out to be wishful thinking on Hackbarth’s part.

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The commission voted to send a letter to the LCC clarifying its autonomy. That letter is to be sent by Feb. 20.

The body also voted to set up a private review process with Thornton.

Given that the majority of the commission members support Thornton, this was still another slap at Hackbarth and legislators who seek “a change of direction.”

At the root of this dispute is good old-fashioned money and how it is spent.

Historically, the nonpartisan LCCMR has recommended that the Legislature direct a portion of the roughly $25 million it receives each year from the state lottery to fund scientific projects that attempt to take on environmental issues that go into the future.

In these lean times, legislators, especially Republican legislators, have cut the more esoteric recommendations and directed the LCCMR funds to be used for “boots-on-the-ground projects.”

For example, Hackbarth and Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, claim that the LCCMR has missed the boat on funding projects related to the various species of carp that have become a huge concern.

At this morning’s meeting, Gibson had to frequently point out that the LCCMR has been funding science-based projects on carp research back into the 1990s, long before it was the hot topic. In fact, much of what Minnesotans know about the issue comes from those projects.

There’s another element to all of this as well. Some legislators of both parties bristle at the notion that mere citizens think they should control where money flows. That’s the job, they say, of legislators.

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And there’s still another element to this fracas.

Most of the citizen members were appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But they believe that the new generation of Republicans is following a political agenda, by opposing programs to combat such long-term problems as global climate change.