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Warfare between Dayton and GOP lawmakers threatens business community’s agenda

Minnesota’s business community is looking for results, not rhetoric; DFL-GOP feuds could greatly interfere with business’s ability to get reform bills enacted into laws.

Divorcing couples often cite “irreconcilable differences” as the reason for their splits, but that phrase seems too tepid to characterize the fractured relationship between DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the Senate Republican majority.

After GOP senators on Monday ousted the governor’s appointee, Ellen Anderson, to lead the Public Utilities Commission, Dayton angrily labeled the Republicans “unfit to govern.”

The animus makes one wonder whether the two sides can get much accomplished this session, even when they agree on issues.

With 175,000 Minnesotans still looking for work, Dayton is motivated to work with the business community to support job growth and company expansions. While Dayton’s income-tax hike proposal aggravated business leaders last year, the DFL governor, Republican majorities and business leaders came together to streamline environmental permitting and provide alternative licensing for classroom teachers.

A base for cooperation

Those joint victories offer Dayton and the business community a base for cooperation during the 2012 session, despite the fact that many business people supported Republican Tom Emmer or Independent Tom Horner in the 2010 gubernatorial election.

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During the annual Minnesota Chamber of Commerce dinner in St. Paul last week, Dayton received a standing ovation from the 1,600 attendees before uttering a word. While that may have been a demonstration of Minnesota Nice, Dayton has increased his credibility with business owners by traveling the state to listen to them talk about their experiences with state government and the obstacles that prevent them from expanding their companies.

It’s clear that businesses and Dayton share a quest for government accountability. In particular, they want better results from taxpayer investments in the K-12 and higher education systems.

Dayton held nine economic development conferences around the state and the messages are fresh in his mind.

“At every regional economic summit, business women and men reported that they cannot fill job openings because unemployed workers or recent college graduates lacked the skills needed for those jobs,” Dayton told the Chamber crowd at the RiverCentre.

Education-jobs alignment

In the audience for the business dinner were new University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and Stephen Rosenstone, the new chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities  (MnSCU) system. Dayton said he told them about the importance of ensuring that “post-secondary classes and training be aligned with the jobs of the future, not the past.” The governor stressed that there would be “no more money for mediocrity.”

Before Dayton’s speech, the Chamber’s Senior Vice President Bill Blazar told members that many businesses that want to expand are running into trouble finding the qualified workers they need.

“Developing the best talent” is one of four top legislative priorities of the Chamber this session.

Dayton implored the business people attending the Chamber dinner to contact the college administrators in their local communities and tell them how their current academic programs “fit or don’t fit your hiring needs.”

Education strategies

On the K-12 front, the governor ultimately will need to choose between the business community and Education Minnesota, the state’s large teacher union, on a pivotal education issue.

A key Chamber policy plank is improving K-12 student performance by providing “effective teachers in every classroom.” The Chamber’s lobbying team is promoting legislation to get rid of an employment practice called “last in, first out.” When school districts do layoffs, the teachers who are the last hired become the first ones to lose their jobs.

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But the Chamber wants districts to use teacher evaluation systems as a factor in layoffs, so the most junior teachers can be retained if they rate well on effectiveness measures.

Education Minnesota, which has about 70,000 members, is fighting to preserve collective bargaining rights this session by maintaining “tenure, seniority and continuing contract laws.”

The teacher seniority bill, which received a House hearing Tuesday, could be one of the most contentious bills of the legislative session. Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers, who is married to a public school teacher, told Chamber members that the current seniority protections mean “the best and the brightest are kicked out the door.”

Environmental review

The business community is making another accountability push this session regarding environmental permitting. Last year, the governor signed legislation designed to speed up permitting. Under the law, the stated goal is that agencies approve or deny permit requests within 150 days. But a Chamber lobbyist said that provision has not been as useful as expected because some state regulators are turning back applications that are not “substantially complete,” so there are delays over when the 150-day clock starts ticking.

Dayton cares about this issue because a cumbersome review process means that jobs cannot be created while state agencies are mulling over whether businesses can comply with state policies. If regulatory staff members don’t act on business requests in a reasonable period of time, companies can choose to do business elsewhere.

The Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents Minnesota’s largest corporations, also wants to see greater efficiency in state agency decisions on environmental permits.

In mid-January, the governor announced the creation of Minnesota Business First Stop, which is designed to make it easier for companies to do business with the state when they have to deal with several state agencies on their startups or expansions. The focus areas for this new office are forestry, energy and green enterprises, manufacturing, mining, agri-businesses and special projects.

Health-care exchanges

On another hot-button issue, key Republicans are skeptical of the Dayton administration’s work on health-care exchanges. But that places pro-business GOP lawmakers at odds with the Chamber of Commerce.

Blazar said that many businesses visited by Chamber leaders in 2011 raised health-care costs as a major concern. The Chamber wants to help shape a Minnesota health-care exchange that it compares to travel portals such as Travelocity and Expedia. A Chamber lobbyist said the exchanges would allow businesses to buy insurance coverage based on quality and price.

Federal health-care legislation pushed by President Barack Obama and passed by Congress calls for the creation of health-care exchanges.

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While the country is split over what critics call ObamaCare, Jon Campbell, Minnesota Chamber board chair, waded into the health-care political waters the night of the Chamber banquet.

He explained that states need to develop their own exchange plans by Jan. 1, 2013. If Minnesota refuses to do so, he said that it would be subject to an exchange crafted by the federal government. “I’d rather have us define it for Minnesota,” Campbell said.

During the 2012 session, Minnesota’s business community is looking for results, not rhetoric.

Based on the early session clashes between the governor and Republican leaders, it looks like there will be a surplus of incendiary barbs. Those personal feuds could greatly interfere with the business community’s ability to get reform bills enacted into laws.