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Dayton’s team outlines 1,000 ‘unsession’ ideas for updating, streamlining government

The process is meant to eliminate outdated laws, clean up legal language and streamline the process for everything from environmental permitting to rulemaking.

Tony Sertich, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, spoke at Tuesday's unsession news conference.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

In Minnesota it’s a misdemeanor to sell fruit in an illegally sized container.

And if a wild boar runs loose in Minneapolis or St. Paul, the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture is legally bound to personally capture the animal.

Also, even though it’s impossible to drive a car in neutral, Minnesota law since 1937 has still made it illegal to do so.

Gov. Mark Dayton, in holding to his promise to push 2014 as a so-called legislative “unsession,” wants lawmakers to spend a good part of their time eliminating outdated laws, cleaning up language in statute books and streamlining the process for everything from environmental permitting to rulemaking.

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Commissioners in Dayton’s administration unveiled 1,000 proposals to do that at a news conference Tuesday, and the governor issued the state’s first-ever “plain language” executive order.

The order instructs all state-run agencies to get rid of jargon, acronyms, run-on sentences and words like whereas and therefore to make government easier for everyone to understand.

 This isn’t a new idea at the Capitol. Past governors have pitched similar ideas to streamline government, and the Legislature has created commissions to get rid of other unnecessary commissions and boards.

But attempts to simplify state government have mostly fallen flat as legislators push major policy proposals or grapple with the state budget. This year Minnesota lawmakers have a $1.2 billion surplus to debate.

“I’m a former legislator. We did go through the books every year, but we usually only picked out a few or maybe a dozen or so changes that needed to be made,” said Tony Sertich, a former House majority leader who now leads Dayton’s Iron Range economic development agency.

“Why is it still a crime — a misdemeanor — to sell fruit in the wrong-sized container? Why do we still have a report on reports at state agencies?” he asked. “Certainly the books aren’t as clean as they can be.”

The governor’s pitch is not only about eliminating quirks in state law. Dayton wants to continue work he’s done on business environmental permitting reform, which has put him at odds with environmentalists in the past. In 2011, Dayton and Republicans, who then controlled the Legislature, passed a bill to move permits within 150 days. As part of the unsession, Dayton wants to see permitting requests for smaller businesses completed in 90 days or less.

“The current protections that exist for the environment, for natural resources and for human health will remain,” said Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine. “The challenge before the agencies is to use smarter tools and to become more efficient and effective at meeting business requirements and needs.”

The governor is also including his push to align state and federal taxes as part of his unsession push, arguing it will make filing for taxes simpler for thousands of Minnesotans. Dayton wants to see that proposal passed by mid-March so people already filing their taxes can benefit. Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans estimates about 40 percent of Minnesotans have already submitted their tax forms.

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“It makes the tax form process that much easier, that much quicker to do,” Frans said. “It saves time and, in this case, also money for taxpayers.” 

House DFL leaders praised Dayton’s unsession idea, and they’re pushing a few cleanup ideas their own. House Speaker Paul Thissen wants to eliminate nearly 40 advisory groups this year that rarely or never meet anymore, and lawmakers in both chambers are working to streamline the process for holding special sessions.

Meanwhile, Republicans are using the unsession to go after the Dayton administration for policies passed last year, including a bill to allow day-care providers to vote to unionize, plans for a new Senate office building and new business-to-business taxes. 

“We plan to use the ‘unsession’ to stop construction of the extravagant $90 million Senate office complex and repeal hidden business to business taxes that are increasing prices on everyday purchases,” Senate Miniority Leader David Hann said in a statement. 

Sertich said the budget surplus has taken a lot of “oxygen out of the room,” but Dayton is still pushing to undo more laws than lawmakers create this year. He is up for re-election this fall.

“It’s much more fun to pass new laws or to do new things,” Sertich said. “Before we start adding new books on the laws this year, we should look line by line and see if there are any that we can take out, clarify or fix.”