Marty Seifert, a health-care executive from Marshall, Minn., had a reputation as a policy wonk when he served in the Minnesota Legislature from 1996 to 2006, first as state representative, then as minority leader for House Republicans. In his campaign for the Republican endorsement to run against Gov. Mark Dayton (he won the straw poll conducted at last week’s precinct caucuses), Seifert is clear that his administration would take a different tack than Dayton’s.
“Frankly, in most areas, there’s going to be a change of direction,” he said in a question-and-answer interview with MinnPost. Here are excerpts from that interview.
MinnPost: What would be your approach to the state budget?
Marty Seifert: I think it needs to be above and beyond just cutting, spending or reducing taxes. It’s got to be about a growth agenda. I know everybody measures things by reductions and tax increases, but we do want to take a proactive approach of: How do we lift all boats to create more jobs, to have people working, less people on unemployment, less people on welfare, more people contributing to the coffers?
But obviously, we are looking at reductions and resizing downsizing, right-sizing government. Minnesota government costs too much, and amazingly everybody understands that. There’s very few people who would say, “I get a very good value for my state tax dollars.” I think they are looking for a better style of leadership in terms of offering solutions.
I have been very aggressive on welfare reform, entitlement reform, reductions of state agencies, abolishment of the Met Council. It’s a combination approach.
MP: Both political parties have endorsed government redesign but little has changed. How would you accomplish it?
MS: I think my biggest redesign would be the Met Council abolishment and dismantlement. I think it has to be major piece of the program.
The Met Council is going way above and beyond what it should be doing, particularly in the area of urban planning and zoning that is better left to local units of government that are held accountable with election certificates.
I look at the Met Council as a duplicative layer of government, over the top of local government that should be doing these things. Frankly, there are a lot of local government units that could be consolidating and performing joint services.
Metro transit authority, no doubt, it has to be centralized somewhere, but the Department of Transportation can do that. So there are some things that are going to have to be plugged into a state department. I’m not arguing that that’s not the case, but I just think there’s a lack of transparency and accountability.
MP: How do you grow the economy? What can government do?
MS: We’ve travelled the state extensively. We’ve had a lot of business roundtables that we’ve conducted. Most of the businesses that I’ve talked to say, “Yes, taxes are an issue.” But the bigger issue still relates to the vexing issue of permitting and regulation, license fees, unfriendly bureaucracies. There needs to be a big scissor approach. Where are the other states around us that have fast-growing economies? Where are they on terms of regulations and license fees? How do we become competitive again?
In the northeast part of the state, opening the mines again is part of the growth agenda. I think the ag economy is very important in the south and the west. The Mayo Clinic is important in the southeast. Certainly we want to do what we can to recruit businesses into the state but I think we have a great opportunity in growing with what we have.
MP: Gov. Dayton has boasted that the economy is growing, unemployment is falling and revenue is increasing. How do you counter his claim that we are already on a growth path?
MS: I think some of the economic data that shows growth is despite Mark Dayton and his policies, not because of Mark Dayton and his policies. The other thing about unemployment statistics is that a lot of people have given up looking for work and that a lot of people that should be in middle-class jobs are working at services-industries jobs that don’t pay very well.
If you look at the average middle-class family in Minnesota, a lot of them do not feel better off than they did when Mark Dayton took office. Their health insurance premiums are going up because of Obamacare. Their taxes are going up. Their property taxes are going up. Their license fees are going up. In the real world outside of the beltway of the Capitol, people are not feeling that great about things.
MP: What would you do to improve telecommunications and wireless access in greater Minnesota?
MS: They’ve been horsing around on this issue since I was in the Legislature years ago. They now have a broadband office. I would tell them as governor: You need to identify the critical areas that do not have access and get it done. How hard is it?
Obviously, there are some areas of the state that are isolated and there’s going to need some investment to bring them into the communications network. I think we need to put a benchmark out there and say at the end of two years, the entire state of Minnesota is going to be linked.
MP: What would you do with MNsure?
MS: I think the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has given us a blueprint of the changes that need to be made. I would do everything possible to reflect free markets. I would look at the chamber blueprint as the initial changes that need to happen.
I think the MNsure board needs changing, the leadership needs changing. We need private-sector expertise from the insurances folks who actually understand how this works and then we also need private-sector input from IT people who understand how this works.
MP: How would you improve education outcomes in low-achieving schools?
MS: I’m a former school teacher [four years at Marshall High School, teaching government civics, geography, and history]. I understand the challenges of being in a classroom. I want to show appreciation for the people who teach and work hard to educate our kids. I think the Republican Party has not always done a stellar job of saying, teaching is a tough field and we have some challenging kids and challenging situations.
I think you have to look at where the gap is. A lot of it is with kids unable to read and write English. We need to focus some efforts; we need to immerse children into reading writing and speaking English. If you can’t understand the teacher, how in the world can you expect them to pass the skills test?
Also, from first-hand experience as a teacher, we have had an erosion of instruction time in the state for the next 40 years. This is something that Arne [former Gov. Arne Carlson] used to talk about. How much time are kids spending in academic instruction in the state of Minnesota? At the end of the day, we have kids in school, less and less, every single year. We need to stop of the hemorrhaging of taking academic instruction time away from the school day.
I think, when people say this problem is going to be solved by just giving them vouchers, that is not going to solve it. We have to understand that 90 percent-plus of our kids go to public schools and they probably always will.
We need to get academic instruction time back to par. On testing, we do need to test periodically, but I do think we get a little overboard at times.
MP: Would you support raising the minimum wage?
MS: I ask, are you for raising youth employment opportunities? And the answer is no. The reality is that the Democrats are going to raise the minimum wage in this session. The only question is how much.
MP: How would you find common ground with the Senate Democrats?
MS: Just because we don’t necessarily agree on all the policies of the day, I do think personal relationships and respect mean something. I’m going to be looking at what are my highest priorities that I want to have done. They obviously have their priorities that they want. There’s a framework that we are going to have to work with. I think we will find some common ground.
MP: What are your top priorities?
MS: Downsizing and right-sizing of government is one. I think the job agenda has to be top priority, like assessing where in Minnesota we have major employers who would like to expand and finding what’s holding up the show.
There’s a few issues on the tax front that are going to be dealt with this session so I want to see what they end up doing. The average middle-class family is looking for tax reductions and I want to provide that for them. I don’t have detailed tax plan put together, other than I know that people need to keep more of the fruits of their labor.
MP: Would you support a gas-tax increase or metro-area sales tax increase for transit?
MS: No, on both counts. There is already a sales tax for transit now. There is never enough money for the people who want to keep spending it. We have to look at what the average family can afford in their budget.
I want to look at, why does it cost 20 percent more to pave a road in Minnesota as compared to a similar road in a state that’s next to us. Do we have issues of competitive bidding? Do we have issues with prevailing wage requirements, permitting, regulations, right of way, easements, etc.?
I think we need to halt any new construction of any new rail lines because none of them meets a cost-benefit analysis. Over 92 percent of the population needs roads and bridges. That’s where the money needs to go.
MP: Do you envision any changes in the way the state approaches citizen privacy?
MS: There’s a large group of people in both parties that are concerned about privacy and Fourth Amendment-type stuff. I am interested in going in the direction of having some accountability for law enforcement when it comes to the new technologies like cell phone spyware. People are concerned that government is getting bigger and more intrusive and this is an issue where the parties can work together.