To make his point, Myron Frans decided to go full-on wonk.
On Monday, sitting at the head of a giant Capitol conference table surrounded by reporters and television cameras, Minnesota’s chief budget guru took out a binder and went point by point through the problems he saw with Republican legislators’ plan to lower health-care costs in Minnesota.
The Republican plan in question calls on the Minnesota Management and Budget office, which Frans runs, to administer nearly $300 million in relief checks to more than 120,000 Minnesotans on state’s individual health-care marketplace — people who saw their insurance premiums skyrocket in 2017 but don’t qualify for subsidies. Under the Republican plan, after several months Frans’ office would also have to determine if someone met specified income thresholds to continue to qualify for relief.
That will require a whole new system, Frans said, one that will take at least six months and $20 million to set up.
“This is going to cost a lot of money, and it’s going to take a lot of time,” Frans said. “If we’re going to go down that road, then it’s going to make it very difficult to get this implemented in 2017.”
In taking on the Republican health-care proposal, Frans finds himself in the middle of the biggest political debate of the nascent legislative session. Tamping down on rising health-care costs is a priority for both the Republican-controlled Legislature and Frans’ boss, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Figuring out both a plan for short-term premium relief, as well as what happens with the state’s insurance market overall, will have major implications on the state’s budget.
In the middle of the debate, Frans also finds himself in a familiar role: Dayton’s most prominent policy pinch hitter.
‘Always a gentleman’
Frans, 66, took his first job in politics in 2011 as Dayton’s revenue commissioner, and it didn’t take long for him to make a splash. The first thing he did was pitch a massive overhaul of the state’s tax code, which he said was in need of a complete rewrite.
He was front and center during the debate over funding for the new Vikings stadium, working long hours to negotiate a deal with Republicans in the final moments of the 2012 legislative session. And in 2013, he helped negotiate a deal to pass one of Dayton’s signature campaign promises: raising income taxes on Minnesota’s wealthiest residents.
In December of 2014, after Dayton’s first budget commissioner, Jim Schowalter, was named the new president and CEO of the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, Frans was appointed as his successor as the administration’s budget boss. “Frans has shown his superb ability to manage our state’s finances,” Dayton said at the time.
For all his financial acumen, though, it’s Frans’ respectful and friendly manner around the Capitol and his background as a successful lawyer and business executive that’s made him popular with legislators. “Commissioner Frans is smart and he has those negotiating skills from the real world,” said House Taxes Chairman Greg Davids, a Republican who negotiated multiple tax bills with Frans. “[He’s] always a gentleman. Sometimes he had a very, very tough job to do, but he did it with grace.”
Frans grew up in small-town Kansas, one of six children and the son of a police officer — an upbringing that influenced his early career choices. After earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, he went to work as a parole officer. He eventually went back to school to get a master’s degree in criminology and then a law degree from the University of Kansas.
During law school, Frans got interested in tax policy, which led to work at a tax practice in Washington, D.C. Then, in the mid-1980s, Frans came to Minneapolis to work at what’s now the Gray Plant Mooty law firm. He later moved to the firm Faegre and Benson (now Faegre Baker Daniels). In 2009, he left law practice to go into business as president of Leeds Precision Instruments, a Golden Valley manufacturing company that designs, builds and sells forensic comparison microscopes for the FBI and companies around the world.
Defending the ‘indefensible’?
This session, at least early on, Frans’ job is to pitch Dayton’s plan to provide health-insurance-premium relief to people who don’t qualify for other subsidies, which would ask the state’s health plans to use a system they already have in place to issue $313 million in relief checks as soon as possible. That wouldn’t cost the state any extra money, he said, and wouldn’t require any time to set up a new system. “This is the most simple, direct plan I’ve ever seen government come up with.”
But a system administered by the health plans also means everyone will get a flat 25 percent rebate, even those who make a lot of money. That’s in contrast to the income thresholds Republicans want the state to enforce ($95,040 for an individual and $194,400 for a family of four) to qualify for premium relief. “The Dayton position is quite indefensible in that you will be giving this money to millionaires,” Davids said.
Frans sees the Dayton plan as the quickest way to get some relief out to everyone as soon as possible. It would also pump a substantial investment into the overall individual insurance market. “We admit that there will be some folks who are making good money who can afford to pay for their health insurance costs,” he said. “We just believe that, in spite of that, it’s going for a good cause and it’s going to keep the individual market strong.”
Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, who authored the Republican proposal, said she sees it as a good sign that the only obstacle to a deal is figuring out “who processes the claims and issues the checks.”
“The important thing is getting something done to help people who’ve been hurt by the government’s poor decisions over the past six years,” she said. “We’re willing to be flexible and work through the technical details with the governor and his staff.”
Frans’ next task is to head into Republican-led committees in the House and Senate this week to defend the governor’s plan and answer questions from legislators. And he’ll soon be back at the negotiating table trying to hammer out a final deal, first on the short-term plan, and eventually on a longer-term solution to rising health care costs.
“Whatever reform we need to do, let’s talk about it for 2018, and that’s step two,” he said. “But step one really is designed to … create an incentive for people to stay in the market and keep the market healthy.”