There was something different in the air at former DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller’s confirmation hearing Wednesday.
Democrats and Republicans were actually getting along.
Pogemiller laughed and chatted with Senate Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Michelle Fischbach and former Majority Leader Amy Koch before the meeting began.
When Fischbach gaveled the hearing to order, she first called Pogemiller “the Honorable” and then, after a pause, asked, “What do I call you now?”
“I think once a senator, always a senator,” he replied.
About an hour later, members of the committee unanimously recommended him to be the director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, pending full Senate approval.
Pogemiller’s hearing looked nothing like the contentious meeting last session when a Senate committee declined to recommend former Sen. Ellen Anderson for confirmation as chair the Public Utilities Commission.
The tone of the floor session to consider Pogemiller’s confirmation is likely to be vastly different from the one that rejected Anderson on Jan. 30.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Fischbach came up to Pogemiller and congratulated him. Someone made a comment about the lack of contentiousness in the hearing.
“We were trying really hard,” Fischbach said with a laugh.
Two other Dayton appointees — the commissioners of the Office of Human Rights and the Department of Corrections — passed through committee since the Senate rejected Anderson.
It’s unclear why the hearing for Pogemiller, who served in the Senate for about 30 years, wasn’t more contentious – given that he frequently tangled with GOP leaders when they were in the minority.
Pogemiller declined to comment on any differences between his situation and Anderson’s.
The GOP insisted that they focused squarely on Anderson’s track record in determining her unfit to lead the PUC. Fischbach, also Senate president, said the confirmations were “two different situations.”
“The PUC is a different kind of administration,” she said. “They’re regulating industries. Where OHE is implementing a lot of things that we’re doing here … the PUC is a separate entity, so there’s a difference there.”
Calls for ‘meaningful reform’
Much of the hour-long hearing focused on the Office of Higher Education’s role. At points, it felt more like a legislative briefing than a job interview.
Pogemiller said he’s looking to shake things up, and that he’s deeply involved in discussions with MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone and University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler. He told the committee that Gov. Mark Dayton, who selected Pogemiller in October, defined his post as “not a retirement job.”
Some members, such as DFL Sen. Kathy Sheran, want the OHE to shift strategies. Traditionally, the office has provided data at lawmakers’ request and handled student aid but hasn’t focused on making clear recommendations about what that data means.
“Clearly this office has done great data collection,” Sheran said. “But my interest in the past and continues to be to utilize those markers in a way to create meaningful reform.”
Discussion ranged from how students spent loan money to creating a higher-education “voucher” system to increase competition among institutions. Pogemiller answered questions about declining federal Pell grants, the state grant program and steeply rising student debt.
Sen. John Pederson, a freshman from St. Cloud, also gave a taste of what’s likely to come in 2013, Pogemiller’s first budget year as OHE director. Last session, Pederson and other Republicans repeatedly pressed MnSCU and U of M administrators about waste and the rising cost of attending college.
Pederson, R-St. Cloud, renewed those questions for Pogemiller.
Without specific answers from the state’s colleges and universities on hand, Pogemiller said, “Next year you should ask me that same question, and I guarantee you I will have a strong opinion.”
“Senator, if you come up to St. Cloud and help campaign for me,” Pederson responded, “then I’ll be here to ask you that question.”