Meet GOP Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, legislative reformer.

That’s not the typical introduction Daudt has been getting during the run-up to his expected election on Jan. 6 as the lawmaking leader and presiding officer of the Minnesota House. More often, Daudt is described as young (he’s 41), single, a former car salesman and Isanti County board member, and greener in House seniority than any speaker since the pioneer era. He’s about to start his third term.

Given that abbreviated record, I’ll concede that calling Daudt a reformer is a bet on the come. Still, that label started to stick at a Dec. 11 legislative preview for Capitol insiders hosted by the Fredrikson and Byron law firm, as Daudt made his third or fourth mention within about 10 minutes of a desire to make lawmaking more problem-focused, data-based, analytical and open to new ideas. And frugal, too — Daudt is, after all, a conservative Republican.

Here’s a sample:

• On lagging learning: “I’m going to challenge the Democrats to come to the table, leave the special interests out of the room and look at why we have an achievement gap. You’ve got to truly analyze what’s causing the problem before you try to fix it. … If spending money solved the problem, we wouldn’t have an achievement gap. This needs new thinking.”

• On transportation: “What I want to do is throw the problem on the table, everybody circle around it and find out what we can do to solve it. … We spend more money now on transportation than at any point in state history. We’re just not spending it where Minnesotans want it spent.”

• On aid to local governments: “I’m going to focus on really analyzing the problems and trying to come up with solutions.”

It occurred: This isn’t the usual presession prattle from leaders about cooperation and bipartisanship. And it isn’t the naiveté of a total rookie. Daudt may be a greenhorn speaker, but he’s been minority leader for the past two years.

These words come from the guy with the power to create committees and install his fellow lawmakers in their chairs. He’s the one who just shook up the House’s committee structure, establishing panels with problem-solving goals and/or strategies built into their very names — for instance, Education Innovation, Energy Affordability, Crime Reduction, Regulatory Reform.

If he wants those committees to do more than examine the bills brought to them — to react less and initiate more — he’s in a position to make that happen. Will he do so?

Daudt isn’t the sort of leader who issues decrees. But he allowed last week that he’s meeting individually with committee chairs, and a sharper focus on problem-solving will be discussed.

“I think the Legislature would run better if every committee focused more on the problem, discussed what’s causing it, talked about what’s driving that, and looked at every solution together,” he said. “Too often here we start with the solution. Here all these legislators show up with solutions. Sometimes it’s something they think is the answer. Sometimes it’s something an outside group brought to them. Then they spend the next five months trying to persuade each other that their solution is the answer to a problem.

“I want to challenge the chairs of committees that on our big, overarching issues that Minnesotans generally agree are problems we need to fix, have more hearings just to discuss the problem. Bring in experts. Look at the data. Ask: Why?” He’s especially keen to see that approach used to devise strategies for improving educational achievement and reining in health care costs while preserving choice and quality.

Follow Daudt’s problem-focused prescription without excessive partisan tilt, and chances for bipartisan accord at session’s end will be enhanced. And with divided government back, the 2015 session will either be bipartisan or bust. As Minnesotans saw in 2005 and 2011, insufficient willingness to agree to bipartisan solutions leads to government shutdowns and slapdowns by voters in subsequent elections.

Asking House committees to function as mini think tanks may be among Daudt’s strategies for achieving his overarching two-year goal: showing Minnesotans that Republicans know how to make divided government work. That’s the case he wants to take to voters in 2016. As he put it: “We have an opportunity to redefine Republicans as people who want to solve problems.”

Some House committees — the best ones — already operate as Daudt describes, and have done so under both DFL and GOP regimes. But the chairs of those high-functioning committees would be among the first to say that they could use more time and open encouragement by the chamber’s leaders to probe issues more deeply and devise bills more collaboratively. They’d welcome a green light to build bipartisanship within their committees and find out how creative they can be together.

Meanwhile, Minnesotans with information to share about pressing state problems would welcome more coordination among committees, more joint and bicameral hearings, and easier opportunities to tell their stories online. More joint fact-finding by the GOP-controlled House and DFL-controlled Senate might make harmony more likely at session’s end.

Daudt likes to say that there’s a downside and an upside to his relatively brief tenure in the House before reaching the speaker’s perch: “The downside is that I don’t have the institutional knowledge. And the upside is that I don’t have the institutional knowledge.” He laughed, then quickly added: “I’m very sincere about that. I’m not bound by ‘This is how we’ve always done things.’ ”

I checked: Fealty to “how we’ve always done things” is not part of the oath of office Daudt will take as speaker. Many Minnesotans wonder whether government structures established in the 19th century are up to solving the problems of the 21st. Setting out to prove that they are, or can be made to be so, is a worthy start to a speaker’s tenure.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.