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Gov. Mark Dayton gave big raises to his cabinet Wednesday, prompting a swift attack from Republicans as he boosted the salaries of some agency commissioners overnight by 30 percent or more.

The raises for top executives, which go as high as $155,000, are far above those that rank-and-file state workers will receive. Recent contract agreements with the state's two largest public employee unions resulted in 2.5 percent increases this year and next.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt warned that Republicans intend to use the issue in next year's campaign. "Minnesotans are seeing [small] increases in their own salaries," he said, "and the governor feels it's appropriate to give commissioners an increase of 20 to 30 percent. To me that's incredibly out of touch."

Dayton said the executive increases are needed to attract and retain top talent, whose administrative skills he said would improve government services and efficiency.

"The salaries of high-level public officials are convenient targets for anti-government partisans, who don't understand the sophisticated administrative skills required to provide quality government services and care even less," Dayton wrote in a sharply worded letter to the four legislative leaders on Wednesday.

In a statement Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the raises are "what we've come to expect from the 'unbound' Mark Dayton. Everyone else in Minnesota will now have to work a little bit harder so Mark Dayton's commissioners can receive $150,000 salaries. It's great to be king."

Wednesday's move capped months of controversy that began when Dayton first announced his intention to raise cabinet pay, only to be met with stiff resistance in the Legislature. Dayton had been given the authority to increase salaries in 2013, when DFLers controlled the House and Senate. As part of a compromise that allowed him one day — Wednesday — in which to raise pay, Dayton agreed to relinquish that authority to the Legislature.

Democrats said that by voting for that deal, Republicans, including Daudt, gave Dayton a tacit go-ahead to increase salaries, and so should share responsibility.

The raises for his commissioners brought Dayton significant political heat all year and exposed an intra-DFL rift with Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, which persisted through the recently ended legislative session and special session.

Bakk offered his support Wednesday: "The Legislature approved the authority exercised by Governor Dayton today in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote this past legislative session. I share the concern of hiring and retaining our highly qualified, dedicated Commissioners and other public servants who perform the outstanding work of our state departments," Bakk said in a statement.

Most members of Dayton's cabinet had been making about $120,000 before the increases announced Wednesday. The six commissioners who run the departments of revenue, management and budget, public safety, transportation, human services and natural resources will make nearly $155,000, which is a 30 percent increase for most. Other commissioners will earn about $150,000 and $145,000.

The position of Metropolitan Council Chair went from $58,499 for a part-time position to a full-time position earning about $145,000. Earlier this year, Dayton appointed Adam Duininck, who has served on the council since 2011, to that post. Duininck is the former director of WIN Minnesota, a left-leaning fundraising organization, and is married to Jaime Tincher, Dayton's chief of staff.

Members of the Public Utility Commission will see raises of more than $42,000, or 44 percent. The commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board will be paid $140,000 — a nearly $35,000 raise.

Before the increases, Minnesota commissioners were making less than their counterparts in most states, according to an analysis by Minnesota Management and Budget from data compiled by the Council of State Governments. Fourteen of 15 commissioners were paid at or below the 50th percentile; eight were below the 25th percentile. The raises push Minnesota salaries above the median.

In separate data obtained by the Star Tribune earlier this year, North Dakota had at least 10 cabinet-level positions that paid more than Minnesota commissioners before the raises and six jobs that will still be paid more than in Minnesota. Most Wisconsin commissioners were paid slightly more than Minnesota's before the Dayton raises but now would be paid less.

Daudt deflected attention from Dayton and heaped it on the DFL-controlled 2013 Legislature that gave Dayton authority to give the raises without legislative approval: "Those are the same people who are going to be seeking confidence from Minnesota voters, asking to be re-elected to the House so they can represent Minnesotans. I think they've already failed Minnesotans," he said.

Dayton called the GOP attacks "beyond the theater of the absurd" and expressed frustration with what he called anti-government partisans who seek to join the institution they claim to loathe: "It's very frustrating to me that their bottom-line goal seems to be to discredit government as much as possible, discredit me, build up some political talking points and get re-elected next time on the campaign theme that government does everything badly and we've done our part to make it worse."

Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042