Not many issues cause people to queue at the Capitol Complex, but when an embattled state agency is about to suffer through another public hearing, a crowd inevitably gathers. The new Department of Human Services Commissioner, Jodi Harpstead,  was the main event as she appeared before lawmakers for the first time. Harpstead opened her testimony with a visual aid, “I have had this granite plaque that says ‘trustworthy’ on my desk.”

As she spoke before the large crowd, Harpstead vowed to increase the trustworthiness of the enormous agency with more than 7,000 employees, a nearly $18 billion budget and a battery of headlines reporting staff leaving, returning and leaving again after several controversies. She said she has a 90-day plan to get the DHS back on track.

Sen. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka) co-chaired the joint committee meeting and said, “I’m glad you’re here, we’ll see how it goes. You know we’re all really frustrated and really disappointed in how things have gone.” Sen. Andrew Matthews (R-Milaca) added, “It comes up over and over again, I hear what in the world is going on at DHS. I’m surprised how this is coming from everyday Minnesotans.”

The Republican-led panel peppered the former Lutheran Social Services leader with inquires that are often spearheaded by Chair Michelle Benson, who declared, “An employee culture where people are afraid is not going to be a productive agency, you know that.” Harpstead responded, “Several people have congratulated me in taking the toughest job in state government.” Sen. Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake) expressed her frustration, “I don’t think we in the legislature should be doing the work that the agency should be doing, you have ample staff to do this work”

Steve Gottwalt, a former Republican State representative who is now with the Minnesota Association of County Health Plans, handed out buttons saying “We Can.” When asked about the message, he said, “We wanted to send a very strong message to policymakers that counties can, we’re tired of fighting this fight. State law allows counties to do what we do for recipients of Medicaid, and we want legislature to understand we’re here in solidarity.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed frustration at first learning about problems in the press. Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Minneapolis) told the new commissioner, “You’re new, [so we] wanted to not only thank you for taking this on big job and inside the department – hopefully we can start working much better together.”

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Wondering what exactly the sprawling Department of Human Services does? Almanac’s David Gillette offers an answer in the illustrated essay, “MN’s Department of Human Services is like an octopus. Here’s why.” 

Across the aisle Lawmakers agree that the DHS’ reputation for trustworthiness could be improved upon – and, as Mary Lahammer reported earlier this summer, they also agree that Minnesota faces a troubling affordable housing crisis. Find out how they’re coming together to address the issue, hammers in hand.