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Dayton administration outlines ‘unsession’ package

Gov. Mark Dayton submitted more than 1,000 proposals for the "unsession." (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Gov. Mark Dayton submitted more than 1,000 proposals for the “unsession.” (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Gov. Mark Dayton‘s ideas for reforming and simplifying state government include more than 1,000 adjustments to policies already on the books. Dayton’s agenda for the “unsession” were introduced during a Tuesday morning press conference that marked the fulfillment of a promise first articulated during the governor’s 2013 State of the State address.

The recommendations offered would change existing language on a number of existing laws, and are intended to make it easier for citizens to understand and interact with Minnesota’s governing agencies.

The administration’s proposals were presented by a team of commissioners, including Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) Commissioner Tony Sertich, who led the presentation. Dayton, who is still recovering from recent surgery on his hip, issued supportive statements regarding the policy proposals.

“Some people like to talk about reform,” Dayton said. “We really mean it.”

The 1,000-plus notions originated from ideas put forth by citizens, who were encouraged to submit ideas during the 2013 Minnesota State Fair, as well as the input of public employees and legislators themselves. Sertich said the administration had been negotiating with lawmakers in the run-up to the new legislative session, and explained that the publication of the agenda on Tuesday passes the process on to the Legislature, which started a shortened, non-budget session on Feb. 25.

“Hopefully, they can pass as many of them as possible,” Sertich said.

Sertich acknowledged that legislators often use off-sessions to clean up the state’s law books, but said those efforts had still left many outdated or unnecessary statutes in existence. As examples of laws that have outlived their purpose, Sertich outlined a statute that would levy a misdemeanor crime on any person found selling fruit in an improperly sized container, and another mandating that a wild boar loosed in the  Twin Cities should be personally apprehended by the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture.

More substantive proposals would adjust laws pertaining to a wide variety of topics, including tax policy. Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans spoke in support of a move to full conformity with the federal tax code, saying it would serve the dual purpose of cutting taxes and simplifying the work of filing.

“It saves time, and, in this case, also money,” Frans said.

A bill to that effect has advanced quickly in the House of Representatives, where the Democratic majority is working to put a full conformity package on Dayton’s desk by March 14. DFL leaders have said that date would still allow many filers to benefit from the tax cuts before completing their 2014 income tax returns. Similar notions in the Senate have progressed at a slower pace, with Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk saying he thinks those affected by the changes could file an amended return after any changes to state policy are passed.

The package offered Tuesday would also alter the executive branch’s process for rulemaking, which currently takes between nine and 24 months. Dayton thinks the enactment of noncontroversial rules could take half as long with a few changes to rules that govern public input and hearing requirements — suggesting, for instance, that the current threshold of collecting 25 signatures for a public hearing should be increased to 100.

The process for approving business permits would also change under the administration’s agenda. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Commissioner John Linc Stine applauded Dayton for reducing 97 percent of permit applications to a 150-day waiting period, and said the governor’s new goal was to cut most environmental reviews to less than 90 days. The administration projects that the new, two-tiered approach to construction projects could lead to swifter consent for a projected 11,000 of the roughly 15,000 annual submissions. Stine said he believed the measure would not inhibit his agency’s ability to protect the environment and address public health concerns.

Another initiative outlined Tuesday calls on state agencies to use clear and simple language whenever possible, with an emphasis on state documents, forms and websites. Dayton has already signed an executive order requiring executive branch agencies to strive for “language commonly understood by the public,” and further instructing them to put “information in a format that is easy-to-find and easy-to-understand.”

“One of the best things we can do for customer service is have clear information, and deliver it in a more timely fashion,” Sertich said.

The agenda was broadly welcomed by DFL leaders, including House Speaker Paul Thissen, who described the administration’s plan as one that contained “common sense ideas to make our government more ‘user-friendly.'”

Republicans, who had previously criticized Dayton for failing to deliver an “unsession” package, issued their own proposals shortly after the administration’s roll-out. The Senate Republican Caucus agrees with the idea of passing a tax conformity bill, but also included a full repeal of business-to-business sales taxes. The GOP also plans to advocate for canceling a $90 million construction project that would add a Senate office building and two parking lots, and the repeal of a law that would allow daycare workers to form a labor union, both of which were passed last year.

“While the governor is wasting time worrying about old laws that are largely ignored, Republicans are proposing real solutions to fix the mistakes of 2013,” Senate Majority Leader David Hann said.

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