The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 21, 2013

UPDATED: Local citizen-lobbyists find ally in Dayton

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

ST. PAUL — Mankato may not really need to lobby Gov. Mark Dayton.

Before he took the hotel floor Thursday, the governor already supported Highway 14 upgrades and the $14.5 million civic center borrowing request. And after he left, Dayton was wearing a purple-and-gold scarf and cheering on the Mavericks.

“He really has a warm spot in his heart for Mankato,” Minnesota State University President Richard Davenport said.

Dayton spent most of his brief talk to Mankato-area leaders pitching his budget proposal for higher spending in higher education and property-tax relief.

He also had some kind words for local government officials.

“A really destructive attitude that’s been prevalent in St. Paul is that it’s your fault,” he said, referring to property-tax increases. “The attitude in the Capitol is that’s your fault, that’s your responsibility. But obviously your two sources of revenue are state aid and property taxes.”

Cities, counties and schools have been cutting their budgets, he said, but “there’s no slack and no room for absorbing the kind of reductions you’ve had to endure in the last decade.”

Dayton also had some advice for supporters of the civic center project: Lobby some legislators, especially those in this region.

“Whatever you can do to build 60 percent of the votes in the House and the Senate, that’s the bottom line,” he said.

The second day of Greater Mankato at the Capitol was much easier for attendees than the first, when 120 south-central Minnesotans fanned out in hopes of finding lawmakers. On Thursday, Dayton, three of his commissioners and a bank analyst came to the downtown St. Paul hotel where the citizen-lobbyists were stationed.

It was the first time in the event’s four years that participants stayed in St. Paul overnight.

The commissioners started with their own defense of their boss’ proposal, and then took questions from the crowd.

A talk from Katie Clark Sieben, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, was probably the most relevant to the business-minded crowd. She began on a high note by announcing the latest jobs figures a few hours ahead of time. February job gains helped make the Mankato region the second-fastest growing area in the state over the last year, she said.

She suggested that Minnesota would not try to win jobs with generous subsidies but would instead focus on developing an educated workforce to lure companies. She said Dayton’s new economic development program would be stricter than JOBZ because its incentives would be disbursed only after a company meets its job and investment targets.

Jonathan Zierdt, President and CEO of Greater Mankato Growth, told Sieben that area businesses would be happy to help the state test out a program that matches an industry’s desire for skilled workers with a post-secondary school that can provide that training.

“Could we do something different and lead the way in this state?” Zierdt asked.

Closing the so-called “skills gap” is a hot topic at the moment, Sieben said, but sounded something of a skeptical note as well.

“And how much of that is about a skills gap? Is it about skills or is some of it needing to happen with on-the-job training?” she said.

In other words, are companies turning an unrealistic expectation about worker preparedness into a “skills gap?”

Attendee Tim Auringer, who works at Brunton Architects, said university graduates could use some more real-world experience in his field. They know how to design buildings on a computer screen but could use more knowledge of how construction actually works on-site.

“For our industry, it’s a little bit of a tweak,” he said.

In between the commissioners, Wells Fargo analyst Michael Swanson told the group — which had dwindled from roughly 100 to perhaps a few dozen — about the importance of exports.

“There’s absolutely nothing better for the long-term success of the Mankato area than export-focused companies,” he said. Improving transportation, especially to the international airport in Minneapolis, would be helpful, he said.

Dayton’s higher-education commissioner, Larry Pogemiller, had a discussion with Greater Mankato Growth Vice President Barb Embacher about guiding high schoolers toward profitable careers.

“We’re giving general grants to kids to pursue dreams that are not marketable,” Embacher said.

Pogemiller seemed to agree, at least in part, saying that the state’s role is to provide students the information on what they can expect once they graduate or get a certification. Software programs on smartphones may be a more trusted source for teens, he said, compared to advice from adults.

“Even though we’re the ones that set up a system to get you that information,” he said jokingly.