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Minn. governor candidate says he aims to change state government's culture

Jeff Johnson, a former Minnesota legislator and current Hennepin County commissioner, is running for the GOP endorsement in the Minnesota gubernatorial race in 2018. Submitted photo

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Jeff Johnson came within 5 percentage points of denying Mark Dayton a second term as governor in 2014, and the Detroit Lakes native hopes to again win Republican endorsement and the governorship next year.

A former state legislator and current Hennepin County commissioner, Johnson said one of his main goals is to change the sometime-overbearing attitude in some state agencies.

"The arrogance we're seeing in state agencies is pretty outrageous, really, whether it's the DNR (Department of Natural Resources), the Pollution Control Agency or the Met Council, the attitude is that their job is to direct and control people, rather than serve people," he said in a recent interview.

He said it won't be a quick fix.

"People with real-life experience will head these agencies — their main goal will be to change that culture," Johnson said.

Healthcare is another issue of concern. "The system nationally and in Minnesota is broken," he said. "My prescription for that is more choice for consumers. Prices tend to go up and quality go down pretty quick with less competition."

Rather than require insurance companies to provide full coverage for everyone, "we need to eliminate the mandates we place on them—let individuals decide what they want. We still need to take care of the sickest among us."

Johnson, who graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead and Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C., lives in Plymouth, Minn. He describes himself as quite conservative, but a pragmatist who wants to get things done.

"I would work well with a Republican Legislature and I'd work well with a DFL Legislature, too," he said "All or nothing tends to be nothing, especially in Minnesota, which tends to be evenly split."

Healthcare and other human services "are largely what is driving spending increases in Minnesota," which has seen a 50 percent increase in spending over the past eight years, he said. "We can't continue to do that,' Johnson said. "The only way to continue to do that is to continually increase fees and taxes on people—eventually we'll hit a wall ... we spend double the national average on welfare in Minnesota—we have to get our arms around welfare spending."

Minnesota spends a greater percentage of its budget on human services compared to similar states, and that's where changes need to be made, he said.

"We have thousands of Minnesota state programs that provide benefits to people—housing assistance, heating assistance—Minnesota will never be a low-tax or a low-service state, that's not what Minnesotans want, but we don't have to be the most generous in the nation."

He favors work requirements and drug testing for all human service recipients.

"We need to take care of the most vulnerable, but for those able to work, it's important to have work required on state welfare programs," Johnson said.

He also wants to make Minnesota more friendly towards business, including start-ups and entrepreneurs. He told of a developer who wanted to build three ethanol plants in Minnesota, but because of excess regulations, ended up building two of the plants in North Dakota and one in Minnesota. The permit process took just months in North Dakota but years in Minnesota, he said. "That is so fixable, if you have a governor who insists we stop over-regulating, and when we do regulate, we do it at the speed of business, not the speed of government."

One of his top priorities is to create middle class jobs, and that's an area the state is lagging in now, he said.

"Much has to do with state policy and how much we tax both businesses and people, and how we over-regulate in this state," Johnson said.

Johnson has a public style far from President Trump's. But the party needs to heed Trump's message, he said.

"I think we need to change as a party—much of Trump's message really resonates with people," Johnson said. "They're tired of people in politics protecting their turf instead of trying to serve people. We as a party need to make sure we're on board with that."

Johnson, who served six years in the Legislature and is in his ninth (and last) year on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, is president and founder of Midwest Employment Resources, a firm providing management training and investigation services to businesses throughout the country.

He's a nationally recognized speaker on management and human resources topics. He previously served as an employment and labor attorney with Cargill, Inc. and with firms in Minneapolis and Chicago.

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