DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is plotting what could become the biggest streamlining of state government in decades as he pivots into the last year of his first term and prepares to face voters for re-election.
After winning significant victories on taxes and economic development earlier this year, Dayton now is asking his DFL allies who control the House and Senate to focus much of the upcoming legislative session on eliminating wasteful, redundant or antiquated laws.
Earlier this month, Dayton assembled nearly 1,000 state government managers for a morning-long meeting at St. Catherine University. It was the first such managers’ gathering since the administration of Gov. Jesse Ventura and only the second in the last 35 years.
Stuck at home, recovering from hip surgery, Dayton appeared via video to urge that managers think boldly about ways to improve processes, saving staff time and money.
Now he’s looking for more dramatic improvements to make consumers’ interaction with state government more efficient and satisfying. That includes shorter, simpler state tax forms for individuals, faster permitting for businesses, less paperwork for teachers.
“If I could wave a magic wand and eliminate all this duplication, redundancy, excessive paperwork and reporting, that would do more to restore citizens’ faith in government than just about anything else I can think of,” Dayton said in an interview with the Star Tribune. “I don’t have a magic wand, it is going to take time, but I am serious about it.”
Not everyone is on board and not everyone shares Dayton’s goals.
Democratic legislative leaders have their own lengthy to-do lists for the session, and some have expressed less than full support for Dayton’s so-called “unsession.’’ The idea is for lawmakers to spend time scrubbing old, unnecessary laws from the books rather than adding new ones, hopefully slashing Minnesota’s 15,000 pages of laws by one-third.
Republicans like the idea of paring government, but their lists of what to undo don’t look much like Dayton’s. They would start with hard-won DFL initiatives, like the state’s new health insurance exchange, a multimillion-dollar Senate office building and new business taxes imposed to balance the budget.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said Dayton has been overly focused on small problems, not the big reforms that can create jobs and shrink government to a more manageable size.
“Governor Dayton is a smart man, and astute, and knows that most people, when they interact with government, it tends to be frustrating,” Hann said. Reform is a good idea, he added, “but we don’t want to neglect these big issues that need to be addressed.”
The search for improvements began early in Dayton’s term, with chief of staff Tina Smith convening 100 top managers in state government every few months to find refinements that would reach into every corner of government.
That work has resulted in hundreds of small but measurable improvements, from slashing admission time at the Minneapolis Veterans Homes to cutting the time it takes to transfer car titles. A special education manual at the state Department of Education that had topped out at 279 pages got whittled to 16.
The savings haven’t only been in time. Overhauling its check processing system netted the state revenue department $1 million. Tighter management of Legacy fund grants is saving $10 million every year. Putting a premium on energy-efficient buildings is saving the Metropolitan Council nearly $8 million a year.
At the St. Catherine’s meeting, Dayton told managers they have a historic opportunity to “make a real difference, a big difference for the people of Minnesota … I want us to be leaner and more efficient and more effective.”
But leaner doesn’t mean fewer workers.
The governor’s top commissioners spend at least part of their time allaying fears that Dayton is pursuing a veiled effort to shrink the 33,000-employee state workforce.
Former DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and a die-hard labor loyalist, has been tapped by Dayton to lead reform efforts.
At St. Kate’s, Sertich told the crowd that innovation would allow more effective use of state workers, not put their jobs at risk. “Governor Dayton has your back, and we are counting on you,” he said.
Sertich will be a key figure for Dayton in the upcoming session. Dayton will be relying on Sertich, who spent four years as House majority leader, to employ his well-honed political instincts and long-standing connections to House members.
A mix of policy geek and political operative, Sertich is a likable and well-respected Iron Ranger with a track record for pushing difficult legislation. Sertich successfully shepherded the proposed constitutional amendment that set aside tax dollars for conservation and arts causes, despite strong opposition from some fellow Democrats.
With a short session planned, Sertich said he is not interested in plunging into divisive reforms that threaten the whole effort.
“I know the food fights are going to happen,” he said. “My role is to look for ideas we can all agree on, and there are going to be many of those.”
Dayton said many of the state’s services have become needlessly hobbled over the years as agency heads and lawmakers piled on new steps, rules and requirements.
The administration is trying to avoid that and will deliberately sidestep some of the more politically explosive issues, such as streamlining the tax code.
“We understand that the legislators have their own priorities,” said Smith, Dayton’s top deputy. “We are not trying to talk them into putting aside their own priorities to focus exclusively on this priority.”
Democrats said they are open to the governor’s ideas, but must consider their own agenda. DFLers want to pass roughly $850 million in new construction projects and boost the minimum wage — perhaps substantially. Those are the kinds of issues that could gobble up a giant share of time and political capital.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has said he wants a brief session and has urged lawmakers to have their reform ideas ready early.
House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said that people always like the notion of government reform and greater efficiency. “But when you dig into the weeds, it gets a lot less interesting really quickly.” Of Dayton’s desire to declutter state laws, Thissen said, “I think it is a good idea, but I don’t think it is the whole session.”
Republicans are not inclined to hand Dayton any easy victories. They note that Dayton’s poll numbers have slipped and believe Minnesotans are skeptical of high-profile, election-year reforms.
“I think he is teetering on the edge,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “People are saying, ‘Hey, we are watching. And if you don’t do the right thing, you are going to be in trouble.’ ”