Gov. Mark Dayton traveled out of the state on a mysterious quest for jobs on Wednesday, leaving behind many questions in Minnesota.
The DFL governor did not disclose where he went, whom he visited or whether the potential “economic development opportunity” would require a state subsidy.
“He is going to visit a company that is considering expanding in Minnesota or another state,” Tina Smith, Dayton’s chief of staff said Wednesday. “He will go anywhere or do anything he can to grow jobs in Minnesota. So that’s what he is doing today.”
Previous Minnesota governors have ventured outside state borders without dropping even the nugget of information Dayton’s staff offered, but the trip has raised anew questions about how much latitude governors should get when state resources are being used.
“I think if he is traveling at state taxpayers’ expense, he should be willing to disclose the purpose of his travel,” said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, the lead Republican on the Taxes Committee. Ortman, who is considering a U.S. Senate run, said the public should be informed about potential deals, especially if they involve state subsidies.
Dan McElroy, who was commissioner for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said that confidentiality is standard practice for many development deals.
“It was often a condition of our getting an at-bat,” said McElroy, who also served as Pawlenty’s chief of staff. McElroy said he did not recall an instance of Pawlenty traveling in secret to cultivate new state business but said, “in a New York minute I would have put him on an airplane,” if he thought it would help.
Dayton left Minnesota Tuesday on a commercial flight with his DEED commissioner and a staff member to the mystery location and was to have returned Wednesday evening, according to his office.
“It’s always going to be a balance between his ability to do his job, which in this case is to bring jobs to Minnesota, and be as transparent as he possibly can in terms of where he is going and what he is doing and we feel like we accomplished that today,” said Bob Hume, Dayton’s deputy chief of staff.
Hume said that Dayton had three options as the trip approached: Reveal nothing and take the chance that something would leak out; walk away from a potential deal, or release limited information about the trip knowing it would trigger further questions.
Dayton chose the last, Hume said.
Dayton, a former economic development commissioner himself, is well versed in the dance of job wooing.
He came up in the Minnesota ranks under DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich, who himself was criticized in the 1980s for his travels in pursuit of jobs.
As governor, Dayton has worked both various angles of economic development, coupling higher income taxes that provide more services with significant tax breaks for business and a streamlining of permits.
This year, with Dayton’s backing, the state steered a half-billion dollars toward a 20-year project to upgrade downtown Rochester, which the Mayo Clinic required to expand in Minnesota.He also signed off on $250 million worth of tax breaks for a Mall of America expansion and approved a multimillion subsidy for Baxter International, a medical company, to expand in Brooklyn Park.
The Baxter deal was the smallest of the three, but exhibited the same cloak-and-dagger secrecy of this midweek trip.
The Baxter deal was referred to only as “Project Fern” by state officials and lawmakers, because they had agreed to keep the name of the company private while they worked on providing tax breaks for the Baxter expansion.
House Speaker Paul Thissen, who signed a letter pledging subsidies for “Project Fern” without knowing what company was in play, said through a spokesman that he has not signed any similar letters since and did not know where Dayton had gone.
But spokesman Michael Howard said Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, was glad Dayton was courting new business.
Bill Blazer, senior vice president at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said he also knew no details about this latest trip, but supported the quest.
“At the end of the day,” Blazer said, “it is still the governor’s job to promote the development and growth of the economy.”
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @RachelSB