Nearly a year into office, Gov. Mark Dayton is embarking on what he hopes will be a signature effort to transform state government into a more efficient and responsive enterprise.

The governor Thursday highlighted a series of changes already underway, from speeding up permitting to a new cost-saving health care program designed to save millions. His administration also pledged to roll out more changes soon -- in education, job training and in the state's back-room technological operations.

The result Dayton promised: fewer delays and better service. He said he wants to overhaul the massive government structure shaped by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and remake it in a way that reflects his own values and politics. Although he is a liberal Democrat who "believes in government" he still wants to see big changes, he said.

"I believe equally in the idea of improving government," Dayton said. "People who live and do business in Minnesota rightly expect government to work faster, better, and more efficiently."

His first big target is one of the largest and most bedeviling areas of the state budget: the health insurance programs for low-income Minnesotans.

On Thursday his administration announced that two health plans, HealthPartners and UCare, had won contracts as "best value'' insurers in the seven-county metro area, the result of a new competitive bidding process for the state health insurance business that is expected to change -- but not reduce -- coverage for thousands of people. Those contracts, coupled with other recent changes in managed health care, will save Minnesota and U.S. taxpayers nearly $500 million in coming years, the governor said.

Much of Minnesota's share of the savings, however, has already been booked in the current two-year budget.

"This is only the beginning of competitive bidding," said Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.

Dayton said he expects to unveil more changes soon.

Republicans have their own plans to streamline government, and for months have been talking to Minnesotans about what they call their "Reform 2.0" initiative.

The bipartisan drive for government reform is driven in part by political appetite but also years of back-to-back, multibillion-dollar budget deficits.

In August, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said the effort was designed to seek new, fresh ideas to help make government more accountable and efficient.

State Rep. Keith Downey, who has been a leading force to streamline state government, said he is glad Dayton is looking to make changes. The Edina Republican said his party's earlier efforts to remake state government were thwarted when Democrats controlled the Legislature.

"From our perspective, state government is still 10, 15 even 20 years behind the private sector," Downey said. The governor's plan "is a start, an important one, but just a start."

But there's trouble in that "reform" harmony.

As part of their effort, Republicans are pushing a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a super majority of legislators to raise taxes.

Dayton blasted the idea as "absolutely idiotic," saying if Republicans are serious about cutting taxes, then they should have the courage to do it without the political cover of a constitutional change.

And Republicans have said the DFL governor has resisted an idea they strongly support -- dramatically slicing the state workforce to save money.

Dayton said Republicans want to set arbitrary reduction numbers without actually learning what agencies do, what works and what doesn't.

Dayton said he's open to new government "efficiencies," so long as they improve services. He won't, he said, just cut for the sake of cutting.

"For some, cutting is reforming," said Tina Smith, Dayton's chief of staff. Dayton's move is about making sure "taxpayers in Minneota are getting better government and lower cost," she said.

Downey said the squabbling highlights a deeper truth. There's so much to improve it doesn't matter if they differ on a few points. Dayton, he noted, only highlighted the proposed GOP amendment, which is just one of hundreds of ideas they are considering.

"There are going to be some disagreements, but so be it," Downey said. "But there's a recognition and a willingness that we have to do this. There's a ton of common ground that we can work with."

Staff writer Warren Wolfe contributed to this report.

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