When Gov. Mark Dayton pitched his so-called “unsession” more than a year ago, those in politics had heard the idea many, many times before.
Dayton’s vision — clear out obsolete language and laws every even-year session, making government more efficient — was like a dozen other attempts from past governors to cut clunky government operations. There’s been little to show for those efforts.
However, with 1,175 unsession proposals already signed into law by Wednesday afternoon — covering everything from tax preparation to business permitting — the governor claims a successful exception to the government-reform rule. And the count could rise, since Dayton has more time to sign or veto bills.
“They can argue until the cows come home about the size of government,” Tony Sertich, Dayton’s unsession project leader, said. “But we can all agree that government can work better.”
How much will average Minnesotans notice the unsession?
One thousand proposals (and counting) is a big number, but not every provision carries a big impact. An overwhelming majority do simple things like eliminate outdated references to groups, or cut redundant wording.
In transportation law, for instance, at least 21 unsession provisions mostly fixed wording. One provision eliminated a law that made it illegal to drive a car in neutral — even though it’s impossible to do so.
In health and human services, 183 obsolete statutes and provisions were removed, including references to the General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) program, which no longer exists.
Also eliminated: a requirement that the commissioner of human services must personally approve the wording and design for a sign at a cemetery, and another law that made it a misdemeanor to carry or sell fruit in an illegal-sized container.
Some commerce laws still referenced the telegraph before unsession bills cleared them out.
Sertich acknowledged some provisions were “low-hanging fruit,” but not every unsession bill makes easier reading out of the state’s law books.
Early in session, Dayton signed a $443 million tax cut bill that harmonized some state and federal tax rules for tuition-paying college students, adoptive parents or those going through a foreclosure. That was an unsession bill, the governor said, because it made data transfers simpler from the federal to the state tax forms.
Federal conformity will also cut in half (from eight to four years), the time Minnesota businesses must keep unemployment insurance tax records on file. Sertich said that would reduce clutter for more than 100,000 state businesses.
Another signature law helps ensure that environmental permitting for businesses happens in 90 days or less. That will help an estimated 11,000 to 15,000 businsses, with most other permits issued in 150 days or less. Permitting once took months or years for some businesses, said Sertich, who also chairs an Iron Range economic development board.
Other provisions made state websites simpler to use for anglers and campers seeking state park campsites online, including on a new Department of Natural Resources mobile website. Dayton also issued a “plain-language” executive order, with state-agency training sessions on how to write in short, easy-to-understand sentences.
“I’m very, very pleased with what happened,” Dayton said this week. “Not only did a lot of our initiatives get adopted, a number of legislators jumped in and really developed their own initiatives and passed those.”
A bill from Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, for instance, eliminated more than two dozen state boards and commissions that weren’t meeting or served little purpose. Those include the Voting Systems Contracts Advisory Committee and the Collaborative Governance Council.
Cutting councils hasn’t always gone well for lawmakers — the Legislature created the Sunset Advisory Commission in 2011 to do just that, but the commission was ultimately repealed itself.
Rulemaking reforms go down
The Legislature didn’t always cooperate with Dayton’s unsession effort.
His administration tried to cut in half the time state agencies make rules that implement new laws or fill gaps statute doesn’t address. That proposal died in the Senate in the final hours, after Republicans made clear they planned to filibuster the bill, author DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas said.
“It was just the Republican caucus in the Senate who decided to take a stand on this issue because they dislike government and state agencies,” Pappas noted.
“It’s frustrating, because there’s been a lot of criticism that it takes too long for businesses to get permits, and here’s a related proposal to streamline the rulemaking process, make the process more clear, but Republicans decided they wanted to make an example of this,” she added.
Republicans say agency rulemaking, which has the force and effect of law, should be complicated — to keep from unwanted changes.
“I personally am very glad we ere able to put the brakes on the rulemaking bill,” said GOP Sen. Dave Thompson, a gubernatorial candidate. “When regulatory agencies are doing things that impact individuals, impact families, impact businesses — and it’s not the Legislature doing it, and it’s the bureaucrats doing it — there should be a rigorous rulemaking process.”
Sertich notes, “You can’t get everything you want,” adding that the rulemaking fight will likely return, as could the general unsession idea, especially if Dayton is re-elected this fall.
“Now agencies and legislators can see that if you set your mind to it, you can get stuff done,” Sertich said. “I could foresee this happening in the future.”