ST. PAUL (WCCO/AP) – Minnesota Republican leaders today ramped up their criticism of Gov. Mark Dayton’s hefty pay hikes for his Cabinet.

The Democratic governor issued a detailed defense of the raises in a letter to the legislature, calling the pay hikes “necessary” and “legal.”

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“The raises I approved were to salaries that had remained stagnant for over twelve years,” he said, “and thus were well below the amounts paid to people with comparable responsibilities in other states.”

Top Republicans say they were caught off guard by the hefty pay hikes, which the governor didn’t make public for 30 days.

“This was just a kind of whammy that came out of nowhere,” said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth.

At a testy Capitol hearing, Republicans accused the Dayton administration of misleading Minnesotans about where the budget surplus is going.

“I don’t think there is a citizen in the state of Minnesota who expected that the surplus money would be going toward commissioner salaries,” Anderson said.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, derided the “luxurious, gold-plated salaries that were announced last week” as out-of-step with stagnant wages for many Minnesota residents. He sponsored the provision to withhold state money from those agencies.

In his letter to lawmakers, Governor Dayton said the raises, some as high as $35,000, are a way to attract and keep high-level talent.

“I want to make clear that none of my commissioners have ever complained to me about their salaries,” Gov. Dayton said in the letter. “Not one has ever asked me for a raise.”

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Dayton’s Commissioner of the Office of Management and Budget, Myron Frans, took most of the Republican flak, noting the governor believes no more raises will be needed for another decade.

“He believes this is one of those moments where you make changes,” Frans said. “This isn’t just for today. This is for the future as well.”

Even with the raises, the governor said his commissioners will be paid less than many school superintendents and city and county managers.

The House Ways & Means Committee voted to cut three department budgets – the departments of Natural Resources, Health and Human Services – by the amount of commissioner raises.

Democratic Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis said it’s wrong to single out three agencies for retribution.

“Yeah, let’s have a broader conversation about compensation. Maybe that’s in order,” Hornstein said. “But certainly not randomly taking three commissioners who have done a very admirable job.”

One lawmaker introduced a bill taking away the governor’s power to give raises without legislative approval.

“They are very upset about 35,000 dollar pay increases,” Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville said about the reaction from her constituents. “I mean, outrageous has really been the theme of what I’ve been hearing from them. It is outrageous.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he’s waiting for the House to pass a deficiency funding bill before scheduling a vote in his own chamber.

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