Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Minnesota's Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead will find herself in a familiar spot on Tuesday morning: before a legislative committee ready to grill her about the agency's disbursement of assistance dollars.
A recent report from the state's legislative auditor faulted this state agency for "significant control deficiencies" during the COVID-19 pandemic as it worked to disburse the "sudden influx of state and federal funding to provide additional shelters, food, staffing, and isolation spaces for homeless individuals or other persons who were unable to safely isolate at home."
The report has already triggered a Legislative Audit Commission hearing that reviewed the findings with Harpstead. State Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, will spearhead the next one before his chamber's Committee on Human Services Reform Finance and Policy.
The auditor's report deserves scrutiny, especially after previous findings in 2021, 2019 and 2018 raised concerns about financial controls. There was also turmoil in agency leadership before Harpstead took over in August 2019. This broader picture is why the Star Tribune Editorial Board urges Abeler and his colleagues to do more than a retrospective review of the latest audit.
Lawmakers should heed the "reform" in the committee's name and hold a forward-looking discussion. Specifically, they should bear down on a serious question that's been asked for years at the Capitol:
Is the state's sprawling Department of Human Services (DHS) too big?
Abeler, to his credit, is among those who have posed this query. During the last legislative session, his committee discussed whether behavioral health services could be delivered more effectively by spinning off this component into a separate agency.
That proposal didn't gain traction. But it brought to mind other calls through the years to restructure DHS. Paul Thissen, a former DFL legislator who is now a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, introduced legislation to break up DHS. And Pam Wheelock, who served as the agency's interim commissioner in 2019, also supported a restructuring.
Wheelock, a respected state government veteran, proposed splitting off DHS' direct care and treatment component, which is essentially an agency-operated health care system that includes psychiatric hospitals, group homes and sex offender treatment facilities. Keep in mind that this is just one part of DHS' daunting responsibilities.
To be clear, Minnesota is not unique in uncovering problems with assistance disbursement. In interviews this week, Abeler and other legislators with critical roles in human service oversight said they continue to have faith in Harpstead, whose willingness to reform the agency has impressed the Editorial Board.
The DHS reform discussion is instead about whether anyone in this job, no matter how competent, is spread too thin. The same question holds for legislators charged with oversight. Would breaking off some responsibilities enhance the delivery of services as well as improve transparency and accountability?
In addition to its direct-care responsibilities, DHS administers the state's medical assistance and MinnesotaCare programs, which have a monthly enrollment averaging over 1 million people. Its responsibilities include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (serving about 426,000 people a month), the Minnesota Family Investment Program (serving 29,000 low-income families), and the child care assistance program (serving more than 15,000 families).
According to state documents, its child support program enforces parental responsibility, with "more than 332,000 custodial and noncustodial parents and their 230,000 children" receiving services.
A budget comparison of state agencies is also revealing. Total DHS spending, encompassing state and federal funding and other sources, is projected at $23.7 billion for the current fiscal year. Other large agencies aren't even close, with the Department of Education at $11.8 billion, and the Department of Transportation at $4.2 billion.
Asked about DHS' size this week, Gov. Tim Walz provided a statement applauding Harpstead's work. He said he is "open to looking into whether redistributing work from DHS would improve accountability."
A smart next step would be to hire a consultant to vet a restructuring plan and recommend next steps. The report should also look at other states and provide best practices.
A serious look at overhauling this sprawling agency is necessary and should attract bipartisan support.
Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves as an adviser to the board.