Call it Minnesota Nice, legislative edition.
The newly christened commissioner of the Department of Human Services, Jodi Harpstead, had been on the job for a day and a half when she made her first appearance before the Minnesota Senate committees with oversight over the troubled agency.
Now on its third commissioner in six weeks, the department has faced a consistent drip of bad news regarding resignations and health program overpayments and whistleblower revelations. And while unhappiness with the agency is somewhat bipartisan, there is an obvious blood-in-the-water eagerness among Republicans to do damage to first-year Gov. Tim Walz ahead of an election that will decide control of both the House and Senate.
So did the majority Republican senators go after the DFL governor’s newest appointee on Wednesday?
Not exactly. Harpstead gave a brief opening statement, during which the former head of Lutheran Social Services held up a desk nameplate she brought from her previous job that said “Trustworthy,” and said she wanted to re-establish the trustworthiness of a department that has clearly lost it. She told senators she has a 90-day plan to reform DHS.
“The theme of my 90-day plan is to rebuild the department in order to rebuild trust with the people of Minnesota,” Harpstead said. “I’m counting on your support for the next 90 days.”
On the turnover of top-level staff in the department — the low light being the resignation, un-resignation and re-resignation of a deputy commissioner — Harpstead said: “I have had conversations with the senior people who have chosen to leave and those who have stayed and I support their choices as good, healthy decisions for themselves and their families.”
But where questions from frustrated senators might then have been expected, lawmakers instead delivered soliloquies.
“We’ve had our hello time here,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, the Anoka Republican who chairs the Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee. “We’ve had our glass of wine,” but that the committee was not yet prepared to talk about legislative concerns.
Abeler compared the flow of information between the department and lawmakers to a teenage son who dents the car and parks it so his parents can’t see the damage. “We’re all really frustrated and really disappointed in how things have gone,” he said, noting that many rank-and-file DHS employees have reached out to legislators to express concerns about the department, and that many don’t want their names known for fear of retaliation.
Sen. Michelle Benson, the Ham Lake Republican who is chair of the Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, echoed those concerns about employee concerns not being taken seriously. “I’m so grateful that you have this list of priorities, but an employee culture where people are afraid is not going to lead to a productive agency, you know that,” Benson told Harpstead.
And Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Milaca, compared the problems with the agency to a human with disease. “This patient has some serious symptoms and these symptoms need to be properly identified so we can give the proper care and treatment,” Mathews said.
But he said the state can’t get past the problems and focus on the good work of the agency — as Harpstead has said she hopes to do — until the disease is cured. “Just as it would be irresponsible for a doctor to tell his patient, ‘Let’s ignore these symptoms and focus on the good bodily functions you have going on,’ it would be irresponsible to do the same with the agency,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Hayden, the Minneapolis DFLer who is the ranking member of the human services reform committee, said it would be better if agency staff didn’t have to go to the news media with issues but could go to agency leaders.
“You’re new, you’re here today in front of us and I wanted to thank you for taking on a pretty big job, but I’m also hoping that you give an invitation to those who work inside the department that hopefully we can start working much better together,” Hayden said.
DHS is something of a bureaucratic beast, with nearly 7,300 employees and a biennial budget of $18 billion. Pam Wheelock, the acting commissioner whom Harpstead replaced, said last month that there are divisions in the agency that have more employees than entire state agencies. That’s why Wheelock suggested the Legislature and governor look into dividing DHS into several parts, with programs that offer direct care and treatment of Minnesotans separate from entitlement programs, such as welfare.
Harpstead said she is open to such a change but wanted to explore it with lawmakers and those with a stake in the agency’s programs and benefits before making a recommendation.
Harpstead did face two actual questions during her just-more-than half-hour appearance. She was asked how she would deal with potential conflicts of interest arising from her former job with Lutheran Social Services, which has many contracts with the state, and she was asked who will repay the federal government for the tens of millions of dollars in overpayments to a pair of Indian tribes for addiction services. She’ll consult with attorneys on the first question, she said, and she’s still being briefed on the second.
For the most part, though, the response from the GOP senators was pretty close to that of the DFL speaker of the House. Benson had already called for a 90-day turnaround plan, and Speaker Melissa Hortman Wednesday wrote that she would ask House committees to hold off on public examinations of the agency until 90 days had passed.
“My intention, in consultation with committee chairs, is to give the new DHS commissioner 90 days to investigate the issues she sees in the department, and then report on what she has discovered and provide her recommendations on how to proceed,” Hortman wrote in response to a request by House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, for hearings.
Hortman of Brooklyn Park also rejected a request to bring Wheelock into a committee setting to ask about her six weeks at the head of DHS.
“In my view, it’s not appropriate to ask the former interim commissioner who has completed her work and service to the state of Minnesota to testify at a hearing,” Hortman wrote. “It is also not appropriate or useful to ask a brand new commissioner who has just started her work to come and testify.”