Shutdown over, Dayton to ‘do what I can’ on jobs

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton is turning his focus to employment, hoping to build a legacy as Minnesota’s jobs governor and get beyond the state government shutdown that put 22,000 state employees out of work for nearly three weeks.

Dayton will start a statewide tour next week aiming to gather ideas aimed at sparking hiring and attracting new employers.

The first-term Democrat — who vowed as a candidate to “go anywhere in the state, nation or even world to bring a job to Minnesota” — said in an interview this week that he aims to make job creation his main goal for the rest of his term, which runs through 2014.

“This will be my No. 1 priority for the rest of my term — trying to help businesses create additional jobs in Minnesota and trying to get new jobs in Minnesota,” Dayton said. “I will go anywhere, call anybody, do what I can.”

Dayton’s budget standoff with legislative Republicans, which led to the nation’s longest state government shutdown in at least a decade, ended after he gave up a plan to raise income taxes for top earners.

The governor’s focus on employment echoes President Barack Obama’s recent emphasis on jobs, with a Midwestern tour that started in Minnesota on Monday and a plan to outline a detailed jobs program next month.

Dayton’s tour — a series of regional meetings starting with a kickoff session in Fergus Falls on Wednesday — will culminate in a statewide jobs summit in St. Paul this fall. The governor said he plans to collect ideas from business leaders, teachers, local economic development officials and labor representatives as he puts together what he described as a business plan for the state.

More than 200,000 Minnesota residents are jobless, and last month’s shutdown caused the state’s unemployment rate to jump to 7.2 percent. Though higher than in recent months, it remains well below the national jobless rate of 9.1 percent, and state Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Mark Phillips, one of Dayton’s top jobs advisers, said Thursday that the shutdown job losses temporarily masked incremental improvements in the job market.

Business leaders said Dayton probably won’t make an immediate dent in the unemployment rate, but can initiate policy changes to improve the job climate over the longer term. High on their list: Lower business taxes, a stronger K-12 public school system and fewer energy regulations.

“We’re not going to wave a magic wand and suddenly have 3 percent unemployment in Minnesota,” said Bill Blazar, senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “We’re part of a world economy. We need state policies that allow us to do well in that world economy.”

Labor leader Harry Melander said he hoped Dayton’s jobs tour would lead to new construction jobs, including another round of public works projects next year backed by state borrowing and a new Vikings stadium, which would create thousands of construction jobs.

“He’s getting back to work and he’s going to try to get us back to work,” said Melander, who heads the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Dayton said he will assess the market and the state’s finances before deciding whether to seek legislative approval of a construction projects package next year.

In Fergus Falls, where hundreds of residents commute to jobs in North Dakota, Mayor Hal Leland said he hopes state leaders will come together to make Minnesota more competitive. Leland said he hopes the deep political divisions between Dayton and the GOP Legislature won’t hamper those efforts.

“We have not been able to compete with neighboring states,” Leland said.

He added: “It’s a challenge, a major challenge, for anyone to do anything and until we get away from the bipartisan polarization, we’re not going to accomplish anything.”

Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers said Thursday that he expected Dayton’s tour to focus more on government jobs than private-sector positions. Still, Zellers added that he welcomed Dayton’s signature on a new state law designed to streamline the environmental permitting process for businesses, and hopes the governor will consider making state agencies higher-tech and consolidating offices that issue permits.

“Private-sector jobs are the most critical part — trying to stimulate that part of the economy,” said Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

For his part, Dayton said he expects to hear a lot about improving access to capital for new and expanding businesses, matching up the state’s educational and vocational programs with employers’ needs, increasing exports and improving infrastructure. He said his administration could move forward in some areas under its own authority, with no legislative action required.

But the governor said he is also open to ideas from lawmakers.

“I think we agree on the importance of jobs, and that got lost in the legislative session,” Dayton said.