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Pawlenty names Dan McElroy new chief of staff
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Finance Commissioner Dan McElroy has been tapped by Gov. Pawlenty to be his new chief of staff. McElroy has a reputation for being studious and detail-oriented, and Pawlenty has often referred to McElroy as a "human spreadsheet." (MPR file photo)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has found a new chief of staff. Pawlenty announced Friday that state Finance Commissioner Dan McElroy will soon leave his current post and take the top spot on the governor's staff. The move was greeted with enthusiasm by those who say McElroy brings a reasoned, balanced approach to public policy. His detractors, however, say he's become increasingly partisan.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty has been without a chief of staff since long-time ally Charlie Weaver left the post in November, 2003, to become executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership.

McElroy will assume his new duties in early February. State Budget Director Peggy Ingison will replace McElroy as finance commissioner. Pawlenty says he's excited by the change -- and particularly McElroy's move to chief of staff.

"He's just profoundly informed, and smart, and dedicated, and has a real passion for public service and for people and to try to make things better," Pawlenty says. "We may disagree on how to get there. But I think we can agree on most of the goals. And Dan is really good about finding new and different ways to get to the goal better."

He's just profoundly informed, and smart, and dedicated, and has a real passion for public service and for people and to try to make things better.
- Gov. Pawlenty, on Dan McElroy

McElroy is a former mayor of Burnsville who worked closely with Pawlenty when they both served as Republican House members. The two left the Legislature at the same time -- Pawlenty to become governor, McElroy to become his finance commissioner.

McElroy has a reputation for being studious and detail-oriented. The governor has often referred to him as a "human spreadsheet." In the past, however, some Republicans have characterized McElroy as too moderate. But he says his own political convictions will now take a back seat to the governor's agenda.

"I'm fiscally quite conservative. ... Beyond the fiscal, I'm described as a moderate. But my personal political philosophy isn't very important in this job. It's the governor's political philosophy that's important. And I've signed on to help implement that," says McElroy.

Some critics across the aisle say lately, McElroy has become increasingly partisan. Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said earlier this week that he would vote to block McElroy's confirmation as finance commissioner. Pogemiller says McElroy was misleading and deceptive during last year's budget debate.

McElroy was a key figure in drafting Pawlenty's no-new-taxes response to the state's multi-billion dollar deficit. Pogemiller says the governor's announcement demonstrates that McElroy wasn't the right person for the finance job.

"I concur with the governor's decision to remove Mr. McElroy. I think he made the right choice to remove him from the commissioner of finance position. Mr. McElroy's skill-set is much better suited to the partisan position of chief of staff," Pogemiller says.

The chief of staff position is not subject to Senate confirmation. But administration supporters scoff at Pogemiller's claim that the move from finance commissioner to chief of staff is somehow a demotion. House Speaker Steve Sviggum says the chief of staff's role is crucial to a governor's success.

"I think it's a vital position. It's the person that the governor has complete confidence in, that will challenge the governor, will give the governor both the positive and negative consequences of a policy action. Very, very important position," says Sviggum.

Senate Finance Chairman Dick Cohen said he, too, had concerns about finance officials' assertions last year that the state had a spending problem.

But, he said, Ingison had "always been easy to work with" and he was planning to meet with her soon about the upcoming session.

Ingison said the job would be challenging and thinks she'll work well with lawmakers.

"I think I've been pretty straightforward with objective numbers and tried to stand back from some of the political fray," she said.

Ingison, 51, has nearly 28 years experience in state government. Serving in her role as budget director since 1996, she has overseen all aspects of the state budget. Before that, she was a fiscal analyst with the Senate Finance Committee from 1982-1996. She started in state government in the Department of Transportation from 1976 to 1982.

"She has a great historic vision of what's happened with budgets in the past but is also able to get right down into the details when we need to do that. She's going to be a great commissioner of finance," McElroy said.

One of Ingison's first priorities as commissioner will be to help prepare the next revenue forecast, to be released at the end of February. It will give lawmakers a better picture of where the state's finances are headed.

The last forecast showed both state spending and tax collections slightly lower than expected, leaving the Legislature to face a modest deficit of $185 million for the 2004-05 fiscal budget cycle.

That amounts to a little more than a half percent of the overall $28.235 billion budget, while the $4.2 billion anticipated shortfall addressed last session was closer to 15 percent.

Ingison said she'll also work to restore the Minnesota's bond rating to the top tier. Last year, one of the three New York bond houses downgraded Minnesota's rating slightly, meaning it costs a bit more for the state to borrow money.

McElroy and Ingison officially take their new positions on February 2, the first day of the this year's legislative session.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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