Her Job: More Jobs

Her Job: More Jobs

As the governor's adviser on job creation, Kathy Tunheim wants to lead “a more substantive conversation.”

Kathy Tunheim’s new gig, as Governor Mark Dayton’s unpaid “senior adviser for job creation,” seems custom built for her. But what does that title mean?

In effect, she’ll be a silo buster. To revitalize the state’s jobs machine, Tunheim argues that Minnesota’s businesses, nonprofits, and governments need to reach “a coherent consensus” on a game plan.

“We’re talking past one another,” she says. “We need to get past the partisan, ideologized way we talk about everything from the budget to the business climate. I’ve been asked to make sure we have a more substantive conversation.”

Tunheim cofounded and is CEO and majority owner of 21-year-old Tunheim Partners, one of the Twin Cities’ largest communications firms. Her involvement in public affairs dates to the 1970s, when she worked seven years for Wendell Anderson during his terms as governor and U.S. senator.

More recently, Tunheim has been a leader of the Itasca Project, a group whose mostly CEO members have been at the forefront of an effort to supplant the metro area’s fragmented economic development programs with a single, area-wide, private-public entity. That’s finally happening now with the March launch of the Minneapolis–St. Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership, with Michael Langley at the helm. But there’s no similar entity covering the rest of the state, Tunheim says. She is among several top Dayton advisers doing “listening sessions” around the state to learn what’s needed to create a larger, unified effort.

“My number one observation from our listening tour is that we are not well-organized to compete,” Tunheim says of the private and public institutions at the city, county, and state level that each hold a piece of a solution.

She plans to work closely with Mark Phillips, Dayton’s economic development commissioner, to see if the state needs to discard some development tools and add others. The 2010 Minnesota Legislature added one new tool that she sees as valuable: the angel investor tax credit. Another might be a revival of something like the Star Cities economic development program of the 1980s. Tunheim says Minnesota lacks an efficient way to help site selectors identify potential locations for their projects.

Some of Governor Dayton’s job-creating ideas hark back to the 1980s, when he was Governor Rudy Perpich’s development commissioner. Perpich pushed for incentives to attract industries seen as winners. Economists call that approach “industrial policy.”

“I think that [term] freaks people out,” Tunheim says. But she notes that governments have long provided businesses with ongoing incentives through tax policies. She says Minnesota should shun both the heavy government planning that marks Asian-style capitalism and a “complete laissez-faire” approach. The state could do more to help exporters and promising industry clusters, possibly including “green businesses,” to grow, she adds.

Tunheim is donating a fourth of her work hours to advising the governor, and spending the rest running her own company. While she won’t lobby for Dayton’s positions, she won’t hesitate to speak up for his point of view. She says, “He is driven by a fundamental value: fairness.”

To make time for the new post and avoid conflicts, Tunheim says she has resigned from the boards of seven nonprofits and advocacy groups.

“It’s important,” she says, “for me to be as transparent and unencumbered as I can be.”

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