Next act for Gov. Mark Dayton centers on reform

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 17, 2013 - 6:10 AM

He’s focused on decluttering state processes and regulations.

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Gov. Mark Dayton

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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.

‘Clean house’

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.

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