“What’s Gov. Dayton really like?” Capitol journalists are sometimes asked.
My answer: The thing to know about Mark Dayton is that he is Bruce Dayton’s son.
At 95, Bruce Dayton is the sole survivor among five brothers who in the mid-20th century ran the state’s finest department store, invented the indoor shopping mall and founded the nation’s second-largest retailer, Target. A private sort, he let others in the family play corporate ambassador. He was the inside man — the green-eyeshade guy who minded the bottom line, made the acquisition deals, sought efficiencies, and tried to live up to Grandpa George Draper Dayton’s rules about customer service and quality merchandise at a fair price.
When Gov. Dayton’s team rolled out its “Unsession” agenda last week, I thought about a son who’s bringing a bit of his father to state government.
What’s an Unsession? Minnesotans are about to find out.
It was a brief mention in Dayton’s 2013 State of the State address, and sounded then like a gimmick with a corny name borrowed from a circa-1975 soda pop commercial.
The DFL governor said an Unsession in the second year of a lawmaking biennium “would be devoted to eliminating unnecessary or redundant laws, rules and regulations; reducing the verbiage in those that remain; shortening the timelines for developing and implementing them, and undoing anything else which makes government nearly impossible to understand, operate or support.”
Fast-forward 13 months. That speech excerpt pretty well sums up the big haul of executive orders, procedural changes and repeal requests — some 1,000 in all — that was unloaded in the governor’s reception room Tuesday.
That’s another thing about Dayton: He means what he says.
Capitol reporters soon forgot about the Unsession. Dayton didn’t. He brought it up when I interviewed him at the State Fair, asking Minnesotans to send their ideas. He met with state employees in the fall and asked front-line workers to submit suggestions.
In October, he signaled that he was really serious. He asked Tony Sertich to come back to the Capitol, help craft the Unsession agenda and sell it to legislators. A lot of deep-pocketed special interests would pay big money to hire Sertich to be their lobbyist. The 38-year-old Chisholm native and son of a college president was a gifted and popular legislator for 10 years and House DFL majority leader for four. Then he accepted Dayton’s 2011 offer to become commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. There, he has shaped $100 million in taconite-tax proceeds into development incentives that have leveraged $500 million in private investments and have created 5,000 jobs.
Dayton is Sertich’s boss. He didn’t have to pay Sertich a dime to convince him to head his Unsession project. All he had to do was ask, Sertich said. He’s still doing his regular job at the IRRRB, where his job description includes “other duties as assigned.” The Unsession is in that category, he said.
Sertich’s renewed visibility at the Capitol has stirred fresh talk about his future. Some DFLers thought he should have tried to unseat GOP U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in the Eighth District in 2012, and say he still has a congressional run ahead. Others think he’s angling for Dayton’s job someday.
He’s smart enough to never say “never” in response. For now, he’s happy to live kitty-corner from his grandpa and a mile from his folks. He’s discovered that he likes peering into the works of government — something he and Dayton have in common. They’ve enjoyed plotting how best to clear through the thicket of government excess.
They came up with a five-pronged strategy. They’ve asked the Legislature to clear away upward of 1,000 obsolete passages in the statute books. That’s the funny stuff about telegraph regulation, elevator operator licenses, and the size and color of bug deflectors. It’s mostly harmless clutter. But there are a few genuine annoyances, too, like the rule that employers must keep records for unemployment insurance purposes for eight years when federal rules say four years is sufficient.
The other four points are meatier. It’s tax simplification via federal conformity, embodied in the supplemental budget proposal Dayton released Thursday. It’s environmental permitting reform, getting most permits processed in 90 rather than 150 days. It’s a speedier rulemaking process, something Sertich said Dayton personally added to the agenda.
And it’s an executive order requiring that all state agencies adopt a “plain language” style in any written communication, including forms that now vex citizens with their inscrutability. Several hundred “plain-language champions” have been designated to curb the jargon and police the obfuscation in state prose.
“Plain language is the biggest idea,” Sertich said. “We will impact customer service for Minnesotans more by that initiative than by any piece of legislation this year. It touches every corner of state government.”
Sertich describes all this with a geeky enthusiasm that he says he’s caught from Dayton.
“There is no bigger champion for the Unsession, for plain language, than for any of this stuff, than Mark Dayton,” Sertich said. “When Minnesotans are frustrated that they aren’t getting the best value from government, he wants to personally fix that problem. He says, ‘We’re going to fix this, and if we don’t, let me know personally — and here’s my phone number.’ You cannot find a commissioner who hasn’t gotten a phone call from him after he hears about an issue. That’s an accountability thing for all of us, too. We don’t want to get a second call from the governor about some individual’s problem.”
Veteran Capitol newsies have seen state government improvement schemes come and go. Every governor has his own version, it seems — Wendell Anderson’s LEAP, Rudy Perpich’s STEP, Arne Carlson’s Children’s Cabinet, Tim Pawlenty’s Drive to Excellence. It would be easy to dismiss Dayton’s “Unsession” as the same old story.
But to do so is to miss a crucial shift in emphasis, especially from Pawlenty’s version. “Drive to Excellence” was about saving money. It was about making government akin to Wal-Mart or today’s Target.
The Unsession is about improving customer service. The model I detect: Dayton’s.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.