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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

November 4, 2019 GMT

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 1

Audit reveals the extent of the mess at DHS

New commissioner is taking sensible steps, but a reorganization may be needed.

After months of turmoil at the state Department of Human Services (DHS), Minnesotans now have some answers about what’s gone wrong. The next challenge is to move from decrying the problems to enacting both short- and long-term solutions to enable this agency to efficiently deliver the vital services it provides to the poor, the disabled and the elderly.

DHS has garnered headlines for months after leadership departures and revelations that it had made $29 million in overpayments for substance-abuse treatment to two of Minnesota’s tribal nations. On Tuesday, the venerable Office of the Legislative Auditor delivered its findings after investigating the overpayments.

The report was grim. The agency has an $18 billion annual budget but lacked “internal controls” to track decision making and ensure compliance with the complex web of state and federal regulations for spending medical assistance dollars.

Who made the original decision that led to the overpayment? We don’t know. How long has this been going on? We’re not really sure. Why wasn’t it caught before now? The unsatisfactory answer: institutional autopilot. An editorial writer reading the report wondered if the state expects better accounting from charitable pulltab booths at local bars than it does from DHS.

The auditor’s report did put a valuable spotlight on a systemic problem that allowed this problem to occur, then fester. The division responsible for the payments apparently was allowed to operate with too much autonomy. The auditor’s crew had a damning interview with a DHS employee who said that administrators were viewed as “intrusive” if they asked questions and that there’s a “culture” in certain divisions of keeping administrators at bay.

The new DHS commissioner, Jodi Harpstead, spoke before two legislative hearings triggered by the report’s release. She merits praise for acknowledging the problems instead of being defensive. She also has sensibly put in place quality-improvement processes used in both the private and public sectors. This is unglamorous but vital work.

Legislators also have work to do, as the auditor’s report made clear. It may be necessary to codify accountability mechanisms at the agency to ensure that they endure beyond the current leadership team. Lawmakers also need to address two more complex issues:

— Restructuring the agency. There have been calls for years to break up DHS because it’s so big. Doing so wouldn’t be a cure-all, but it could reduce management layers, allowing leadership to more rapidly spot problems. Lawmakers should commission a report from outside experts outlining the advantages and drawbacks of that idea.

— Repayment by tribal nations. It doesn’t appear that state regulations allow DHS to hold the two tribal nations harmless for the overpayments. The Legislature should change state law. It’s not an ideal solution, but it would avoid a protracted legal battle with the tribes, whose leaders followed the agency’s guidance. It also would help repair the relationship between DHS and the tribes. That’s critical because both play a vital role in stemming substance abuse in American Indian communities. The tribes could help the process by providing reassurance that the money was spent appropriately.

Some perspective is also needed as DHS’s troubles continue to garner headlines. Former state Rep. Matt Dean, a Republican, provided that in a recent tweet: “I’d like to see as many people concerned about addiction in Leech Lake (and) White Earth tribes as are concerned about overpaying for it. It’s beyond a crisis. The numbers are unbelievable and heartbreaking.”

Dean is right. Substance abuse, educational disparities and poverty have long plagued tribal communities here and elsewhere. Legislators, these problems merit your time and attention, too.


St. Cloud Times, Oct. 25

Hope & Fear: Why we did it, what you’ll find

Today, we invite you to read the opening installment of “Hope & Fear,” a four-part series exploring the state of relations between long-time Central Minnesota residents and newer Somali neighbors, more than 15 years on.

After a summer of discord, community self-examination and conversation spurred by a national spotlight on St. Cloud, we decided to step back and take a new, measured look at the topic we’ve been covering day by day and week by week since the early 2000s.

The series launched Tuesday on our digital platforms; it starts today and runs through Wednesday in the print editions.

Here’s what we hope you’ll glean from this series, which is the product of several months of reporting, interviews, research and fact-checking:

— A new perspective on the range of opinions that drive the white-hot emotion surrounding this topic.

— A better understanding of exactly who is working to build bridges, and how.

— A better understanding of the very real fears that drive people on both sides of the discussion.

Perspective and understanding. That’s it.

What you won’t find in the series: Definitive answers about how many people of Somali descent live in the St. Cloud area, for instance, although we do explain (again) why the range of estimates is broad, and why anyone who says they know the correct number almost certainly doesn’t.

You won’t find rehashes of previous reporting about what cities and counties say the influx is costing taxpayers, although we do provide information about where to get the answers on your own.

You won’t find any bombshell new proposals to “fix” the “problem,” whatever the problem is from your perspective.

What you will find are stories from people in our community. Some of those stories stem from generations-deep roots in Stearns County, others sprouted in refugee camps on another continent. Each one is telling.

You will meet people whose words drip with optimism and praise for the efforts so far to become one community with many facets. You’ll meet others who are full of despair that it will ever happen, or fear what trying for that goal might bring about.

The most compelling stories you’ll hear are those of the changes wrought in individuals since St. Cloud saw its first Somali refugees arrive almost two decades ago. Some are stories about how a person has moved from fear to real hope for a fully integrated community. Others have seen their perspectives move from hope or disinterest to fear.

Understanding. Perspective.

Whether the series offers solutions is up to the reader to decide. The people we interviewed offer examples of several possible paths this community could take into the future. All believe their path is “better.”

Through the decisions of its leaders and the behavior of its residents, the community as a whole will decide which path we will walk together.

Behavior is the key. Do we — all of us, Christian, Muslim, agnostic and atheist — do unto others as we would have them do unto us?

If not, that might be a great place to start.


The Free Press of Mankato, Oct. 31

NCAA: League must go further on compensation for athletes

Why it matters: The NCAA has too long profited from student athletes without just compensation for the millions they bring in.

While the NCAA took a good first step admitting that college athletes deserve “to benefit” for the millions they bring to their schools and the league, it left open options for restricting that compensation as much as possible.

The NCAA Board of Governor’s approved a policy Tuesday that would allow students to benefit from the “use of their name, image and likeness.”

The NCAA doesn’t highlight the word “compensation” and the Board of Governors called on each division to come up with rules that would “not turn student athletes into employees of institutions.” The board also said rules of amateur athletics must remain in place, and that the change “must be consistent with the values of college sports and higher education.”

The NCAA also said the rules should be aimed at creating the “best possible experience for college athletes.”

There’s much to be deciphered here, but it sounds altogether too limiting.

Of course, the NCAA was forced into this mode of “benevolence” as states like California passed laws making it illegal for colleges to prohibit student athletes from being paid for endorsements, social media advertising and autograph signings.

On the federal level, Rep. Mark Walker, R-North Carolina, has introduced federal legislation making it illegal for colleges to restrict athletes’ ability to profit from their names and likenesses by marketing to third parties.

We believe athletes deserve to benefit from their name, likeness or other things of value and they should be able to receive compensation from third parties who find value in promoting the athletes and their brand. If the universities benefit directly and received funds, athletes should get a share.

College athletes have been subsidizing the money machine that has become college sports for too long. Consider the $6 billion reaped from the Division I college football playoff contract with ESPN. Men’s basketball reaps a $1 billion in a contract from CBS and Turner.

It’s time college athletes got their due. No amount of finessing with rules suggesting “principles of amateur athletics” will outweigh the rights of college athletes to be compensated for the income they generate for their schools.