The holiday season is a respite from political drama for most Minnesotans, a break between the constant campaign ads of election season and the policy fights awaiting the next governor and Legislature in early January.
But for those working on the transition of power between Gov. Mark Dayton and Gov.-elect Tim Walz, the two months after Election Day are crunch time. They are trying to hire 22 state agency commissioners who will help enact major policy changes and reflect the values Walz campaigned on: inclusivity and bringing a diverse range of voices into the Capitol. The commissioners also need to withstand a Senate confirmation process.
“We’re all giving it our all, because you have this narrow window of time to set this administration up for success,” Walz’s Chief of Staff Chris Schmitter said.
Walz will be sworn in Jan. 7 in a transition that will be unique in Minnesota’s history.
Since the formation of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in 1944, a DFL candidate has never won an election following another DFL governor. The executive branch has swung back and forth between parties, apart from 1976 — when Gov. Wendell Anderson left the job to become a U.S. senator and his Lt. Gov. Rudy Perpich slid into the state’s top political post for the rest of Anderson’s second term.
Whether a number of Dayton appointees will keep their jobs remains to be seen. All applicants must send in their qualifications through the same process, said Kristin Beckmann, who is leading Walz’s transition team for state agencies. Her goal is to get all the commissioners in place by Jan. 7.
Then the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans 34-33, essentially has veto power over the governor’s choices. Commissioners can start their work as soon as Walz takes office, but the Senate will be watching and could later oust them during the confirmation process.
Senators typically confirm commissioners in the final month or so of the legislative session, which concludes the third week in May. But they could go through the process earlier if they consider a commissioner a bad fit, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said.
“Selecting commissioners is a really important step for the governor and will say a lot about whether we can work effectively together or whether we’ll have to work a little harder to make that happen,” Gazelka said.
He has talked with Walz a couple times about commissioners. He said Republicans are looking for people who can work in a bipartisan way and will tackle agency problems such as fraud in a state child care program and the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS) debacle.
Gazelka said he came out of those conversations with Walz optimistic but was concerned when he saw the makeup of a transition advisory board last week, which he said seems too far left. The board, led by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, will reach out to communities across the state and encourage people to apply for state jobs. The Walz administration also announced Monday it is bringing on a number of hiring directors to help with that process.
The candidates who take over the state agencies will inherit a number of challenges, from handling MNLARS at Minnesota Information Technology Services to improving the safety of officers at the Department of Corrections following the recent deaths of two officers.
But one of their first tasks will likely be helping develop the budget. Walz has a Feb. 19 deadline to present his administration’s budget plan for the next two years.
Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans said the Dayton administration has been preparing for that tight transition timeline since June.
State agencies put together details about their budget based on what the Legislature passed and how much they anticipate they will need going forward, he said. They also laid out the top issues facing their department, and the budgetary impacts of addressing them — or not.
Now Dayton officials are meeting with the Walz administration to explain those issues, he said.
Budget officials also are pricing out some of the potential policy changes Walz supports, Frans said.
Over the next several weeks they will come up with cost estimates and look at logistics for ideas like a gas tax increase or legalizing recreational marijuana, he said.
Frans is one of the current commissioners who plans to reapply for his job. He noted the new legislative lineup, with Democrats in control of the House, made him more interested in staying.
Walz is talking with commissioners about their interest in staying, though they have to apply like everyone else, said Beckmann.
She said it is a “great big puzzle” to determine how to balance desires for stability and fresh ideas and make sure their hires fit with the rest of the governor’s cabinet.
After the Walz administration picks its top agency executives, those leaders will select their deputy and assistant commissioners. A large number of deputies and assistants from the previous administration typically stay on, Frans said, though over time the new leaders will bring in more of their own hires.
While Beckmann is focused on finding state agency leaders, Schmitter has started the hiring process for Walz’s personal staff.
He said he plans to hire roughly 30 to 50 people, such as general counsel, schedulers and legislative affairs advisers.
Beckmann worked on Dayton’s transition in 2010, when he succeeded Republican Tim Pawlenty.
She said this transition is a “totally different climate. ... I know that I am standing on the shoulders of the administration that has come before us and the good work that they have done.”