An unelected, unpaid adviser is playing a key role in shaping state economic policy.
Over the past nine months, business owner Kathy Tunheim has served part-time as Gov. Mark Dayton's senior adviser for job creation. That puts her on the front line of the administration's top issue and at the head table for Dayton's statewide jobs summit next Tuesday.
Some people around the state Capitol call Kathy Tunheim the jobs czar.
Tunheim said she winces when she hears that term, because it's overused and in her case not accurate. She calls herself an advocate for job creation in Minnesota.
"I have the honor of being close enough to the governor and the governor's office to make sure that important issues around job creation get navigated and get a lot of attention," she said. "That's really what I'm making, sure. My job is to make sure these important issues get the right kind of attention, as fast as we can do it."
Tunheim owns a Bloomington-based public relations firm with a long list of local, national and international clients. She divides her time between Tunheim Partners and her adviser role in the governor's office.
To avoid potential conflicts, Tunheim made public a client list that includes Medtronic and Target. She also resigned from the boards of eight organizations, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the University of Minnesota Foundation.
When announcing the appointment in January, Dayton said Tunheim brought priceless experience and relationships in the business world. Tunheim said Dayton asked her to use that background to strengthen connections between the public and private sectors.
"He'll be the first to say government doesn't create jobs, and I absolutely agree with that," Tunheim said. "But what government can and should be doing at every level is ensuring that we've created the terms and conditions that make Minnesota a fantastic place for private investment to occur. And in my particular bias, it's private investment that creates jobs."
Tunheim said Dayton's recent series of regional meetings on job creation highlighted the need for improvements in workforce development. She said the state can improve education and training opportunities to make sure there are ample workers available for high demand jobs in health care and manufacturing.
The state also can help business gain access to financial capital, she said, and provide the roads, bridges and other public infrastructure needed for commerce.
"It's not insignificant that infrastructure decisions are fantastic job creators, for designers, for engineers, for architects, but also for skilled trades people," Tunheim said. "And they spark economic activity all over the state of Minnesota."
Tunheim didn't bring up the lower taxes and regulatory relief favored by many business owners and Republican lawmakers.
David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said those issues are the keys to job creation. Olson has high praise for Tunheim, but he doesn't want her boss talking about tax increases again in 2012.
"The business people that I talk to, their biggest obstacle to creating jobs and hiring people is just kind of this overall uncertainty of what's going to happen next," Olson said.
Republican legislators echo Olson's concern. State Sen. Geoff Michel of Edina, chairman of the Senate jobs and economic growth committee, said he wants to lower the cost of doing business in Minnesota and he hopes the governor agrees. Michel said job creation needs a bipartisan approach, and he thinks Tunheim can help.
"Right now, at the end of 2011 in one of the deepest recessions we've ever been involved in, we need all the help we can get," Michel said. 'So, if Kathy Tunheim can bring some experience and some good ideas to the table, great. Let's have at it."
Michel and other Republicans have been conducting their own separate statewide tour to talk about job creation. They're also invited to the governor's daylong jobs summit Tuesday in St. Paul.