Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


State’s big agencies confront challenges of new tight budgets

After a long and bitter battle over Minnesota’s budget, commissioners of the state’s two biggest agencies are trying to work with the hand they’ve been dealt by lawmakers.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.

Sitting on a couch in her office recently, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius looked ahead to the enormous job her department faces and lamented the programs she couldn’t secure in the education bill approved by the Legislature last month.

What didn’t Cassellius get?

“$200 million,” she says with a laugh. “I would’ve loved to have more money.”

Then, shortly after the interview ended, Cassellius charged out of her office and ran across the main floor of the Education Department building and shouted: “All day kindergarten!”

That’s one of the initiatives she wanted that didn’t come as part of the deal to end the state government shutdown in July.

Still, Cassellius won some concessions (no school vouchers, no A-F grading) from Republican lawmakers, and now the agency is tasked with carrying out the hard-fought reforms included in the $14 billion K-12 bill.

Two areas — Education and Health and Human Services — account for about 70 percent of Minnesota’s budget, and the recent partisan battles over the budget had a hand in derailing the departments’ operations. But now commissioners in those departments and others have the next two years to lead.

After months of partisan battling over Minnesota’s $35 billion budget, including a three-week government shutdown, state agency commissioners are looking ahead to governing the domains they were appointed to oversee.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson is busy applying for federal waiver relief and revamping how the state pays for health care services.

And in education, Cassellius and her team are planning a No Child Left Behind waiver application and early childhood proposals aimed at securing federal Race to the Top funding.

“I was so excited to finally be able to focus on supporting schools and really focus on the agency, and it was really exciting to have everybody back because there was this great energy with all of the staff coming back,” Cassellius said of her employees. “There wasn’t any boo-hooing. Everybody was ready to come back and get into schools. They had great workloads that they had to catch up on, but everybody’s had a great spirit about it and has been just terrific.”

Reform initiatives
Jesson, who Gov. Mark Dayton appointed in January, is also enthusiastic as she describes the whiteboard in her office covered with ideas and reform initiatives she’s working on. Her voice brightens when she discusses projects aimed at “look[ing] out for the interests of those people who didn’t have a lot of paid lobbyists.”

“I have them written up there to remind myself everyday: make progress on these [ideas], even when we’re worried about shutdowns and budgets and everything else,” Jesson said. “I kept this list of eight things on my board so I made sure every day I was not so consumed with the crisis of the moment that I wasn’t making sure our agency wasn’t moving forward on these important initiatives.”

Jesson said the agency hopes to have the federal waiver application complete by early 2012 and to begin reforming home- and community-based services to the elderly and vulnerable, as well as to “beef up” fraud enforcement and start looking at changes to the state sex-offender treatment program.

“When you’re trying to redesign home- and community-based services, that’s really exciting work, that’s really challenging,” Jesson said.

Cassellius’ department will have to confront challenges associated with the school-funding shift lawmakers approved as part of the budget deal.

“Even though the shift is a bum deal and it’s a bum deal for the state and it’s kind of difficult way to solve a problem by borrowing, the governor recognized that there were 22,000 people out of work every day and he had to make a very tough decision and agree to things that maybe he didn’t agree with.”

Bright spots
The commissioner pointed to bright spots in Minnesota education: improved teacher and principal evaluations, more funding for literacy initiatives, a $132 million hike in per-pupil funding, a newly appointed Early Learning Council and Minnesota’s pending Race to the Top application.

In the areas of lowering the achievement gap and curbing racial stratification, Cassellius said she’s looking forward to working on “Integration 2.0,” task force authorized by the Legislature to tackle those issues.

“Our state is not known for being at the top of that list,” Cassellius said of Minnesota’s achievement gap ranking. “I’d like to change that in four years. But we are probably very near if not at the bottom of that list.”

The Education Department is still catching up on processing teacher applications and postponed student score reporting that was supposed to be completed in mid-August.

The department took a 5 percent cut this budget cycle, and repeated state-aid reductions have resulted in federal funding accounting for 60 percent of the agency’s budget, up from 40 percent in 2003.

The Department of Human Services faces similar challenges. “You don’t cut $1 billion out of a projected budget in Human Services without causing harm to people and the providers that serve them,” Jesson said. “I very much understand that. Having said that, while this bill is a compromise, I think there are many things in the bill that we can be very proud of.”

“I’m pausing because it’s kind of hard to describe,” she said of her position. “You can either look at that responsibility as a tremendous weight or as a tremendous opportunity, and I look at it as a tremendous opportunity to help improve the lives of those who are the most vulnerable … it’s an awesome but wonderful opportunity to have.”