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Reform could bring GOP, Dayton together in 2012

ST. PAUL -- Looking back, it is hard to see much other than disputes between Minnesota's governor and legislative leaders.

After all, they went 58 days beyond the Legislature's constitutional deadline before agreeing on a budget in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, including 20 days when government was partially shut down.

But the future could be brighter.

Minutes after Minnesota legislators passed that budget, Republican leaders were talking about making reforms throughout state government next year and saying that they think Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton will be an ally.

Dayton is right there.

"I want to go top to bottom with us as a state and really transform how we deliver services and do them better," Dayton said in a Forum Communications interview.

The stereotype is that Democratic-Farmer-Laborites defend government and hesitate making changes. Not Dayton.

During talks with Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, reform was a common topic, Dayton said. "We brought it up again and again."

The governor said he felt Republicans at first were skeptical that he really wants to change government. "I reminded them, I have no investment in protecting or defending the status of state government in Minnesota. ... I want as much as they do to provide better service at lower costs."

Dayton self-financed much of his governor and U.S. Senate campaigns, so he has fewer allegiances than politicians who rely on money from organizations that want to keep the status quo.

He illustrated his independence early in his term when he bucked Education Minnesota, a key DFL supporter, and backed a bill he eventually signed into law that makes it easier for mid-career professionals to become teachers.

Dayton said his administration this year will form task forces and take other steps to change state government before legislators return to St. Paul next year.

Some reforms Dayton and Republicans who control the Legislature agreed to this year, despite deep divides over the budget, provide a taste of what could come.

Koch talked about reforms such as the phase-out of the health-care provider tax, which is similar to a sales tax on health care. Republicans and Dayton also agreed to make the estate tax less expensive and found ways to make government more efficient.

Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, pointed to provisions that reward cost-saving programs, consolidate services and require performance reviews of state workers. He also praised passage of a measure to ban the purchase of alcohol and place other restrictions on the use of electric benefit cards, formerly known as food stamps.

Dayton said once lawmakers and his administration have had a chance to catch their breath, after the time-consuming budget impasse, he will launch a task force to examine how to reform taxes.

Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, met with Dayton several times to promote his idea about replacing the state income tax with a broader sales tax that would include taxing services instead of just goods. While others said Howe's ideas may have merit, such a major change was impossible during the budget talks.

There already is at least one tax agreement.

"We have agreed with the Republicans ... to improve our identification of people who are not paying their taxes in Minnesota and improve their collection," Dayton said.

Dayton also said Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson will continue working with GOP leaders to find more efficient ways to deliver health-care services to the state's poor, disabled and elderly. Health care is the biggest cost problem government faces.

Also, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius already has begin looking into education funding options and later this year will launch task forces about the future of integration aid school districts receive for minority students as well as principal and teacher evaluations.

Dayton likes what he recently saw at Minneapolis-based General Mills, which found ways to reduce administrative time and costs.

"I am going to make the governor's office the first test case I have had," he said. "I am going to lead by example."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.