Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead presented her 90-day review of the department to members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday, December 10. Harpstead was appointed by Governor Tim Walz with the charge of addressing various departmental problems, including overpayments of federal funds to Indian tribes and counties for combatting addiction; payments of fraudulent child care assistance claims; and the resignations of key departmental personnel.
According to Harpstead, the Department of Human Services is "not in a free fall, in crisis, in total chaos." She explained that the total amount of inappropriate payments over the past six years totaled $106.5 million dollars, or .1 percent of the $96.1 billion dollars of payments made. She said the department will attempt to recoup the money and that process controls have been implemented, "because every dime matters."
In addition to continuing their oversight of the department, committee chair Senator Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said that she will begin the work of examining a possible breakup of the agency by reviewing a 2013 report issued by Minnesota Management and Budget on the department's restructuring.
DFL Senators announced the creation of a new Clean Energy & Climate Caucus, which piggybacks on efforts by Governor Tim Walz with the recently formed Climate Subcabinet and the House DFL Climate Action Caucus established in September. Senate DFL members appeared before the media at a State Capitol press conference Tuesday, December 10.
Senator Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, chair of the 29-member group, said the caucus goals include the promotion of hearings on legislation that will address clean energy and climate change, advocacy for clean energy proponents and businesses and the advancement of science-based evidence. The new caucus plans to hold public listening sessions around the state to learn more from Minnesotans concerned about how the changing climate is affecting regions and livelihoods, according to Frentz.
Noting that the Senate DFL has struggled to get bills heard in committee in the Republican-led Senate, Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, hopes that the formation of this caucus will encourage the majority to schedule hearings on clean energy proposals. “We’ve seen thousands of people come to the Capitol over the last legislative session urging us to make this issue a priority,” he said. “And as I personally reflect on it, I’ve thought about the fact that the future’s really not mine. But the future does belong to my grandchildren.”
As chair of the Higher Education Committee, Senator Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, toured the Iron Range and areas surrounding the Twin Cities this fall to learn more about ways of preparing and training today’s students for tomorrow’s workforce needs through partnerships between businesses and higher education. He joins moderator Shannon Loehrke to feature the benefits garnered through the unique educational approach.
Policies to slow or even avert potential climate change are on the minds of Governor Walz and state lawmakers. This week, Governor Walz announced the creation of a climate change Subcabinet and an Advisory Council, while in the House of Representatives, the Climate Action Caucus held another meeting. Senator Nick Frentz, DFL-Mankato, who sponsors Governor Walz's clean energy bill, highlights ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota.
Also on the program, lawmakers examine new ways of taxing vehicles to support road improvements, and Attorney General Keith Ellison announces a state lawsuit against e-cigarette manufacturer JUUL.
State policymakers received good economic news with the announcement that Minnesota’s state budget has a projected state surplus of $1.332 billion dollars in the current 2020-2021 biennium. Minnesota Management Commissioner Myron Frans outlined the news at a state press conference Thursday, December 5.
According to state budget officials, the surplus allows for additional money to be deposited in the state’s reserve account, bringing the total reserve to $2.359 billion dollars, which reaches the state’s reserve goal. Risks to the accuracy of the forecast include consumer confidence, uncertainty with trade policy, a slowdown in business investment and geo-political events.
“This forecast is an indication of Minnesota’s strong economic fundamentals, but I would not be a thoughtful budget commissioner if I failed to mention that we need to be careful in planning and our decision making to ensure that we maintain budget stability going forward,” cautioned MMB Commissioner Myron Frans.
Following the forecast, Governor Tim Walz and legislative leaders responded to the projections, with some lawmakers expressing reservations about long term spending changes, while others called for further tax relief for Minnesotans.
The Legislative Task Force on Vehicle Registration began reviewing options Monday, December 12, for improving Minnesota's vehicle registration system. A new Vehicle Title and Registration System (VTRS) is being created to replace the current system, referred to as MNLARS (Minnesota Licensing and Registration System). MNLARS became problematic in 2017, when state officials rolled out a new computer-based system, which caused lengthy delays in obtaining proper driver and vehicle licenses.
State lawmakers have a desire to launch the new VTRS system on solid footing, and the Task Force on Vehicle Registration is examining various funding mechanisms for taxing vehicles while maintaining the current support of Minnesota's roads, highways and bridges. Whether to base the tax on a vehicle's weight or value is under review, as is the option to establish a flat rate.
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This fall, Senator Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, chair of the Health and Human Services committee, is conducting listening sessions around the state to hear from Minnesotans directly about managing their prescription needs. She joins Capitol Report moderator Shannon Loehrke to provide details on how prescription drug prices could be lowered.
Also on the program, one of the Minnesota Senate's two physicians, Senator Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, joins Shannon to offer his perspective on reducing the costs of prescription drugs as well as ways to reduce the increase in teenage e-cigarette use.
Since 1904, the beautifully ornate Governor’s Reception Room in the Minnesota State Capitol has hosted heads of state and welcomed visitors. Brian Pease of the Minnesota Historical Society describes the history and the features of this remarkable room.