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Mark Dayton’s new head of Labor and Industry wastes no time connecting with state’s business groups

It may well have been Ken Peterson’s first call after Gov.-elect Mark Dayton’s announcement today that he would become commissioner of Labor and Industry. Within 10 minutes, he had hooked up with the state’s Chamber of Commerce.

It may well have been Ken Peterson’s first call after Gov.-elect Mark Dayton’s announcement today that the political veteran would become the commissioner of Labor and Industry — again, some two decades after his first stint.

“I don’t know the gentleman, but within 10 minutes of his announcement, I got a phone call from him,” David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, told me. “He is interested in the Chamber issues. He wants to set up the meeting pronto. I was impressed.”

It wasn’t the day’s only proactive contact from the Dayton team to a group that spent millions to keep Mark Dayton out of the governor’s office.
 
A few minutes later, Olson and Bill Blazar, the Chamber’s executive vice president, visited Dayton transition advisers Tom Borman and Robin Sternberg to outline the Chamber’s economic development and budget priorities.

“We gave them a briefing on our business retention and expansion program — Grow Minnesota,” Blazar said. “They’re interested in what resources are out there that will work hand in hand with state programs.”

The meeting dealt with few specifics, but Olson and Blazar were not disappointed, far from it. “It’s too early for them to have a comeback, but I thought it was good dialogue,” Olson said.

Olson said he didn’t dance around the issue of tax increases: “We shared our priorities, and they know our priority is not to raise taxes. They clearly weren’t surprised with our position.”

Blazar agrees. “I’m impressed they are reaching out,” he said. “Obviously economic development is going to be a big component of the Dayton administration.”

As it was for Dayton’s former mentor and boss, Rudy Perpich.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs — Rudy Perpich drilled that into his head,” said Blazar, who has known the new Labor and Industry commissioner for more than 30 years, including while Peterson served in the same job under Perpich.

Blazar’s opinion: “Ken Peterson has been around state government and state policy. He’s a smart guy, smart guy. He’ll work hard at it.”

For all the high marks the Chamber was giving today, there still remains a marked difference of opinion on how to close the state’s $6 billion-plus budget gap.

“Our first choice is to try to help them spend the $32 billion [the basic two-year state budget] and make the list that helps them avoid a new tax. I am still optimistic we will get there,” Olson said. “Not without some pain. There will be pain in this for the business community. If LGA [Local Government Aid programs] are strictly reduced or restructured — you will see property tax increases.”

Such issues as reducing local aid, no tax increases, and reforming public employee compensation are just some of the differences that could chill a Chamber-Dayton relationship as the winter wears on.

But for now, Olson and the businesses he represents are pleased. They’re pleased with the willingness to listen and with the response of the Dayton team to the Chamber’s priority of streamlining the environmental permit process.

And for the moment, Olson is perhaps most pleased that the Chamber’s kickoff to the legislative session, its annual dinner, will have a keynote speaker, the new governor. In front of an audience that often numbers nearly 1,000, Dayton will address a group that worked actively to defeat him.

Olson sounded relieved: “The good news is he’s coming to our Jan. 6 event.”