(Source: Star Tribune)
A September 20 legislative committee meeting raised difficult questions about the oversight of housing grants, some of which serve people with disabilities. The discussion included talk of reorganizing or breaking the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS).
The Senate committee reviewed DHS internal processes for ensuring that money awarded to local government agencies and nonprofits actually go to the people they are intended to help. A legislative auditor’s report found extensive violations of state legal requirements in the oversight of grants meant to help marginalized populations, including homeless people and people struggling with mental illness, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The auditor’s review found no evidence of misspent funds or fraud, but also could provide no assurance that fraud didn’t occur.
Legislators were pointed in their criticism, repeating past calls for the agency to be split up into smaller parts to improve accountability. In a display of frustration, Sen. Jim Abeler, (R-Anoka), who heads the committee, waved a stack of old audit reports critical of DHS to underscore his view that the agency has become too large to manage effectively.
“The trust of the public is what’s at stake here,” Abeler said. “And I have to say it’s not a new discussion.”
In testimony, DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead defended the agency’s track record of disbursing aid to people in need, while suggesting that excessive regulation may be partly to blame for the agency’s recent problems. She highlighted the cumbersome grant-making process, in which DHS must go through more than 80 steps required under state law. Those rules should be streamlined, she argued, so that money can get into the hands of providers faster — particularly in emergencies like the pandemic.
“I will say, once again, that the department manages over $20 billion in funding,” Harpstead told lawmakers. “To look at this one audit and declare that DHS is a mess or in trouble is grossly unfair to the caring and competent people at the Department of Human Services.”
Still, Harpstead signaled her openness to legislators’ calls for a possible restructuring of DHS.
DHS has more than 7,000 employees, spent $23 billion in the last fiscal year, and oversees programs that serve 1.2 million Minnesotans, including Medical Assistance, mental health care and child-care assistance.
Harpstead said that recently retired Deputy Commissioner Chuck Johnson has returned to the agency on a temporary basis to focus on reorganizing the agency. She and Johnson plan to develop recommendations to DFL Gov. Tim Walz on the structure of DHS.