For the eighth year in a row, Myron Frans is likely to spend the final days of Minnesota’s legislative session in a series of heated closed-door meetings. He’ll be prepared to play the peacemaker as the governor and top lawmakers wrangle over state spending and policy debates amid politically charged personality conflicts.
As budget commissioner to Gov. Mark Dayton, Frans will come poised to crunch numbers and advocate for his boss. But he can also be counted on to jump in at just the right moment with a wry comment, or a polite but firm suggestion to move to another topic — anything to defuse the tension and keep the high-stakes negotiations from going off the rails.
Frans has led Dayton’s Minnesota Management and Budget office for four years and his Department of Revenue for four years before that. Many state lawmakers who have been in private negotiations with Dayton say the governor is not reluctant to show his temper, but Frans’ place of prominence in Dayton’s firmament and his sunny personality position him as a counterweight.
“He can get into anyone’s office and show he’s very comfortable and knowledgeable,” said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center. “You might disagree with him on some things — we both have had to be firm with each other on various issues — but then when you’re walking away, you say: ‘He’s a really nice guy.’ ”
Still, Frans has also learned that being well-liked doesn’t always silence the critics. In recent years, Republican legislative leaders have openly questioned whether the Management and Budget office has politicized the twice-yearly process of forecasting state finances — a charge Frans and Dayton have strenuously refuted.
A private attorney-turned-public servant, Frans is a bit of an anomaly at the Capitol: a tax lawyer who likes people as much as he likes numbers and a political figure who is well liked by members of both parties. After a day bustling around the Capitol in a suit, the 67-year-old Frans bicycles home to Minneapolis in shorts and tall gym socks.
“I get along with people,” Frans said. “I think the main thing is I respect people and I never treat anyone with disrespect, even if I may completely disagree with them.”
With just months remaining in Dayton’s eight-year run in office, and as the governor and his team push for an infusion of aid money to public schools while Republicans pursue tax cuts, Frans is one of just two members of the DFL governor’s inner circle who have been with him from the start. And he’s one of only a few who made their way to the top of the administration from outside state politics and government.
Though he spent the bulk of his career as a corporate tax lawyer — and joined the Dayton administration after running a microscope-manufacturing business — Frans is quick to note that he technically began his career in public service.
Raised in a small central Kansas town, Frans worked as a parole officer before attending law school and launching a legal career. In a way, he followed the path of his parents: his father was a police officer who later served as sheriff, while his mother did a stint as an emergency dispatcher. (For a while, the family lived above the county jail, and a teenage Frans sometimes played touch football with jail inmates on the courthouse lawn.)
After moving to Minneapolis in the mid-1980s, Frans built a decadeslong career as a tax litigator, married a fellow lawyer — Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal — and raised two boys.
Then Dayton called. After his narrow election win in 2010, the governor was looking for a revenue commissioner who could help eliminate a $6 billion state budget deficit that greeted him upon taking office.
Frans took the job, joining Dayton in a tumultuous first year that included a sprawling budget debate and a state government shutdown. Out of that “tough, tough time,” Frans found motivation for even bigger projects. He dug in on a plan to overhaul the state’s tax system.
“I just sort of focused on that and tried to be someone the governor could go to figure out how to solve this tax problem,” he said.
Frans determined the state was relying too much on property taxes, rather than income and sales taxes, and felt regular Minnesotans should be bothered by that, too. In 2012, he launched a sort of one-man tax policy tour around the state, toting an unbalanced three-legged stool to illustrate the problem. He made about 160 stops in 50 communities around the state.
Within a few years, Frans had helped Dayton create a new “fourth tier” of income tax payers, raising rates on the state’s highest earners. It stands as one of Dayton’s major accomplishments. The legs of Frans’ wobbly stool began to even out, as did the state’s budget outlook.
In his second term, Dayton asked Frans to take on a new role: heading up the Minnesota Management and Budget office, a hybrid agency responsible for both the state’s budget and its approximately 35,000 employees. It brings frequent 12-hour days at the Capitol, endless legislative committee hearings, and late-night texts from the governor. The MMB commissioner is the state’s chief financial officer, its chief human resources official and its chief labor negotiator.
“I do human resources stuff 80 percent of my time and financial stuff the other 80 percent of my time,” Frans joked.
In recent years, Frans has made a priority of transforming the state workforce to better represent its population. He’s pushing for major reforms to the state’s pension system, hoping to wipe away billions of dollars in unfunded liability he said could eventually impact the state’s ability to borrow money.
In the last two years of the Dayton administration, Frans has been out front as the governor protects his priorities against a Republican Legislature. Last year, Frans was a central figure in the end-of-session meltdown between Dayton and GOP legislative leaders that prompted a lawsuit and costly legal battle.
At times, GOP leaders have targeted Frans’ budgets and financial projections. Last fall, when the administration said the state was facing a budget deficit, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, suggested that Management and Budget officials manipulated the numbers to paint an unfairly dim financial picture. GOP leaders raised similar questions after the February forecast.
Last week, Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, praised Frans’ personality and his critical role in budget negotiations. But he wondered out loud about the administration’s updated April budget numbers, which showed better-than-expected revenue.
“We do think this is evidence that the February forecast was overly pessimistic,” Knoblach said.
Dayton said Frans is an essential part of his administration because he doesn’t tell his boss what he wants to hear. The governor said Frans’ experience outside government proved to be a good fit for a job that can get tied up in politics.
“Sometimes when people come from the private sector ... there’s just not a fit, there’s a different way of doing things, or they don’t like it,” Dayton said. “Myron fit perfectly and seems to really enjoy it.”
Frans didn’t expect to stick with Dayton for eight years. But he said he never considered leaving for something more lucrative, less stressful, or more flexible.
“There’s no question that he could have gone off and done whatever he wanted,” said Bob Hume, a senior adviser to the governor and the only other member of Dayton’s circle who has remained since 2011. “But he feels like we have unfinished business.”