Myron Frans stood quietly at the back of the room at a recent conference of Realtors, listening as they cheered Republican legislators every time they railed against taxes. He was next up to speak, and it didn’t look pretty.
Frans, commissioner of the Department of Revenue and Gov. Mark Dayton’s point man on the proposed tax overhaul, did his usual spiel about the need for a fair and sustainable tax system that recognizes exponential growth of the untaxed service sector. He used his now famous three-legged chair as a prop to show fiscal imbalance, and employed his self-deprecating sense of humor.
There were occasional grumbles from the audience and one woman smacked her head in disbelief at one point. The crowd clapped only once, when someone gave him “kudos” for exempting people who sell real estate from the service taxes.
Welcome to Myron Frans’ world, where they are your friends only when you leave them alone.
“I think that went pretty well,” Frans said later. “Did you hear them before I got up? I thought I’d get my head handed to me.”
Frans is used to tough crowds, as many business leaders have criticized the new plan. But those who know him say a good sense of humor and a thick skin have helped him survive.
“I found him very kind, very knowledgeable and informed about the issues we face,” said Chris Galler, CEO of the Minnesota Association of Realtors. “He and the governor are trying to focus on the things that are good for Minnesota, and he’s good at explaining the governor’s plan.”
Despite exemption from taxes on the sales side, Galler said, Realtors are concerned about business-to-business taxes and the potential that the Legislature may remove the exemption on home sales.
Frans’ journey to the state’s top tax wizard has been circuitous. The son of a cop and a restaurant owner (“Burger Shake”), Frans studied sociology and worked as a probation and parole officer, then got a master’s degree in criminology.
He went to law school to become a criminal attorney, but discovered his inner geek and fell in love with tax policy.
“It was back in the early ’70s; it was Vietnam and I wanted to be a lawyer,” said Frans. “When I got to law school I took a tax class from a great teacher,” he said.
“I liked the policy and I liked the legislative history: Why was this enacted, what was the purpose behind it? It’s not all just dry number-crunching. It’s the vehicle for everything.”
Frans, 62, is married to Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal, and has two boys. Before Dayton selected him, Frans was president of Leeds Precision Instruments. He had never been involved in politics.
“That is the toughest part for me, not having the political filter other folks do,” Frans said. “That’s not my natural prism. It’s gotten so charged because even fairly moderate policies get demonized because they raise revenue, and any revenue-raising is seen as bad. It really limits your options.”
So how would his tax proposal look to him if he still ran a business?
“I would not look at the tax issue as the first item, it wouldn’t be in the top five,” said Frans. “It’s what kind of employees do I have to develop a better product? Are they trained? Can I get my product out with good infrastructure?”
As for threats by some companies to leave if their taxes rise: “Our company would never have considered disrupting the lives of our employees to avoid paying a couple of dollars of income tax,” he said.
Frans said he loves his job, but acknowledges the long hours are difficult. He recently went cross-country skiing with his son for a break from the grind.
“I realized it was his first time,” said Frans. “I felt like a bad Minnesota dad.”
Accepting the job, Frans joked with Dayton, “I assume this is an eight-year position.”
He has promised to at least stay for Dayton’s first term.
“I don’t know if it’s my swan song or not. I haven’t really thought about it. This is so fast and furious right now, I’m in the moment.”