Gov.-elect Mark Dayton has convinced one of the state's current top finance officials to stick around and serve as his chief budget advisor.
Dayton announced Thursday that Jim Schowalter will become commissioner of the Minnesota Management and Budget department. It could be Dayton's most important appointment, since Schowalter will help the new governor come up with a plan for erasing a projected $6.2 billion budget deficit.
Schowalter joins the Dayton administration well-prepared to hit the ground running on budget and finance issues. He served as deputy commissioner and state budget director at MMB under outgoing Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Dayton said at a time of budget crisis, he wanted a commissioner who could provide continuity and credibility. Schowalter said he's honored that Dayton asked him to help.
"My experience in state budget, experience in understanding state government and how it works is going to be a big advantage to help advise the governor-elect, to help pull together the team and get this budget out by the 15th of February," said Schowalter. "But just as important [is] the work of other people at Management and Budget, across state government, because it's going to take a lot of ideas, a lot of people working together to figure out how to make things more effective."
Schowalter said the budget deficit is a big challenge, and so is the tight timetable for putting together a proposed solution.
After taking office on Monday, Dayton will have just over six weeks to present his balanced budget plan to the Legislature. Schowalter said he'll start work immediately.
"The framework of the budget and the philosophical approaches of the budget were discussed quite a bit during the election campaign. So, it is not unfamiliar territory to the governor-elect, what kind of things he wants to start looking at," said Schowalter. "That being said, we've got a lot of work to put together everything so that it is complete and ready for review by the Legislature."
As he moves from the administration of a Republican to a Democrat, Schowalter pledges to take a nonpartisan approach to financial management.
The new chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said Schowalter has a reputation of being nonpartisan.
"He's always been very easy to work with, has provided information when asked and is quite knowledgeable about nearly all areas of the budget," she said.
The new Republican House Speaker, Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove called Schowalter an "outstanding choice," and someone lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can work with and trust.
The new Republican Majority Leader in the Minnesota Senate, Amy Koch of Buffalo, didn't offer any comment on Schowalter. Instead, she issued a statement critical of the pace of Dayton's appointments.
Koch said she's concerned that Dayton still hasn't picked commissioners to oversee the largest areas of the state budget, including education and human services. Dayton has now filled five of about two dozen cabinet posts.