ST. PAUL, Minn. -- John Gunyou realizes he has not taken the typical career path by consistently moving down the pay scale as he has gone from private consultant, to Minneapolis finance commissioner, to Minnesota state finance commissioner.
"Somebody asked me once whether I've been moving in the wrong direction," he said. "Obviously, as a private consultant I took a huge pay cut going to the city, and I took another pay cut taking this job [finance commissioner]."
During a recent interview in his state office, Mr. Gunyou, a board member of both the Government Finance Officers Association and the Municipal Securities Regulatory Board, spoke about his career, the state of public finance, and critical areas that need to be addressed in the near future.
He likened his reasons for taking the pay cuts to the tale of two medieval knights riding down a path. One turns to the other and says, "You know, I could make much more money in the private sector, but that would mean I'd have to give up chopping off heads."
He said did not mean that as an analogy to budget cuts the administration of Gov. Arne Carlson had proposed this year -- although he said some former Minneapolis colleagues began referring to him as "Saddam Gunyou" in regard to proposed local government cuts. Instead, he said he was talking about the ability to affect peoples' lives as a public servant.
"The most interesting side [of public service] is that you can be in a position to make a difference," he said. "It's really easy to do that in Minnesota, where there is a progressive tradition and government does a lot for people. You can really add something to society, and not just try to develop, market, and sell the 151st kind of breakfast cereal."
By moving from Minneapolis finance commissioner, a post he had held since 1984, to state finance commissioner early this year, Mr. Gunyou said he has more opportunities to affect peoples' lives.
"I think the biggest change going to state government is that it's politics with a capital 'P', rather than a small 'p'. And it's not dealing with ward issues, the rich part of town versus the other side of town -- it's dealing with all the statewide issues. Plus, all the party politics are much heavier and the numbers are more staggering," he said.
Role in Budget Process
Independent-Republican Gov. Arne Carlson made Mr. Gunyou one of his first appointments to a major state post after his election last November. At the time, the state faced a $1.1 billion shortfall in the biennium that begins July 1.
Mr. Gunyou got high marks for his role in the bueget process from some state and public finance officials.
"I think he's doing an amazing job, considering that he did not have any state government experience before taking the job," said Tom Triplett, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership and finance commissioner under former Gov. Rudy Perpich.
Mr. Gunyou's active role as a member on the board of the Government Finance Officers Association and the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board expires this year. He said that during his time on the boards, the areas of industry regulation and disclosure have been particularly cantankerous.
"I was kind of in the middle of all of this because I have been an issuer who has not been adamantly opposed to regulation," he said. "At one point or another, I think I made everyone mad at me.
"I've been crass enough to suggest that we have issuers on one end, and investors on the other end, and everyone else is a middleman. The middlemen are regulating this market. I've suggested that the MSRB needs to expand the ends, with more issuers and investors represented. In fact I've been one who has suggested that's who [issuers and investors] should be running it, not the middlemen,' he said.
"My own sense of what's wrong with the whole disclosure arena is that too many people who have been dealing with it for too long are still in charge. There's too much bad blood. I think a lot of people try to take a fresh look at it, people like myself, and they just get burnt out," he said.
Once he gets his batteries recharged, Mr. Gunyou said he would like to become involved in other issues in GFOA.
"Our whole focus in GFOA in terms of intergovernmental relations is on the federal government. I think the federal government is a very small piece of state and local government finance. And the reason is, we don't get any money from them anymore."
Mr. Gunyou recalled one national conference about seven years ago at which he and others argued against focusing too much on the federal government -- in particular about devoting too much time in fruitless efforts to increase federal revenue sharing.
"There was a renegade group, which I voted with, that said, 'This is a done deal, why are we putting another penny of our resources into this? Forget about it, it's gone,'" he said.
Mr. Gunyou also said there is too much focus on the federal government's effect on the tax-exempt bond industry.
"What can the federal government do to you in bonds? They can increase your price by X amount. That's basically all they do. I mean, that's a big deal, but big deal. We're never going to get out of the business, we'll always have" the ability to issue tax-exempts for important projects, he said.
Still, he said, the GFOA needs to focus more on the relationship between state and local governments.
More Women, More Minorities
"State governments can put you out of business. They can say you can't issue bonds, or they can say you can't issue tax increment bonds. What is GFOA doing on the state-local relationship? Nothing. That relationship should be the focus of the national organization, whether it's in developing model plans or identifying common problems in different states," he said.
Mr. Gunyou said he also would like to be involved in increasing the number of women and minorities in public finance.
"I don't think we do nearly a good enough job of involving women and minorities in the profession. I think the association can do a whole lot more. What they have done, which I think is very useful, is that they have taken a lot of care to make the board representative, the committees representative, but I think we could as an association do much more to help state and local governments, possibly through recruiting efforts, to make the field more representative," he said.
"I think it goes beyond that, too. I think it's mentoring, developing networks and training programs," he said.
"You need people who can deal with the reality of what do you do as a public finance officer. I think the profession could do a much better job of bringing along," he said.
Mr. Gunyou said the last two decades have seen a decline of the best and brightest wanting to work in the public sector -- a situation he hopes will change soon.
"I grew up in the Kennedy era, where there was an excitement about public service. Then came Nixon and the money-making era, and that destroyed all that," he said.
"We need people interested in wanting to become bureaucrats," he said, jokingly. "What we really need is to get people excited about public service again. We need to make sure our successors are prepared for the job."