Tom Steward

Tom Steward is the bureau chief of Watchdog.org's Minnesota Bureau, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is an investigative reporter focused on waste, fraud and abuse in government and has previously worked for WCCO-TV (CBS) and KSTP-TV (ABC) in the Twin Cities. Follow Tom on Facebook and Twitter.

MNsure to Minnesotans: “Get ready to shell out some cash”

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: February 4, 2015 - 9:33 AM

Spoiler Alert:  This not-so-friendly reminder just released by state health exchange czar Scott Leitz may be unhealthy for your check book and budget.  

In case you had better things to do the last five years and missed it, the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act requires everyone to obtain specified health coverage or pay the price.

If not, the resulting tax penalty could wipe out your refund, according to the state health care exchange czar.

“A sizeable tax return could easily be erased if a tax penalty is due because you don’t have health insurance,” said Leitz in a news release.

Sure, the penalty “only” amounted to $95 per adult or one percent of taxable income with a cap of $285 per family—last year.  Like everything else in 2015, however, the price will be going up.

Non-compliers will pay a much stiffer price, roughly three times more. Minnesotans who run afoul of the mandate will be assessed $325 per adult and $162.50 per dependent under 18 up to a maximum of $975 or two percent of yearly household income, whichever costs you more.

Here’s the kicker. Even those who do pay the feds’ penalty will still be left out in the waiting room without medical coverage despite their payment, truly a lose-lose.

Don’t get Leitz wrong. MNsure issued the alert reluctantly only in order to save Minnesotans even more pain.

“No one likes to talk about taxes or penalties, but the reality is both do exist. MNsure does not set these penalty amounts, nor does the money from these penalties go to MNsure,” said Leitz.

So why would it be “in our best interest to remind Minnesotans about these tax liabilities to make sure they get health insurance coverage before February 15, instead of a surprise at tax time?” as Leitz said.

It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that open enrollment for MNsure ends on February 15. While more Minnesotans than ever have health coverage, the Associated Press reported recently that MNsure may soon need more state subsidies due to “lackluster enrollment in private plans and drying-up federal funds.”

Seems like a mandate for individual Minnesota taxpayers to pay the penalty for MNsure, whether they enroll or not.

14 MN examples of impact of government rules and regs in 2014

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: December 31, 2014 - 11:50 AM

Cameras banned at public debates sponsored by a good government group? Not in Minnesota.

An indy documentary banned by a festival supported by taxpayer funding? Anywhere but here.

A $2 million plus wind turbine touted as a national model under the federal stimulus program though it didn’t work? OK, no surprise there.

This may be the most off-beat list of 14 stories from 2014 that you encounter heading into next year, but that’s the point. Frivolous, funny or even infuriating, these Watchdog examples of real life Minnesotans dealing with the powers that be sometimes slip under the radar of the mainstream media.

Not necessarily in any particular order nor the biggest stories of the year, but big enough to motivate individual citizens to get involved or pass along a tip. Here’s to those who did and do.

1/League of Women Voters calls on the cops: The League of Women Voters called police to stop video trackers from filming a candidates’ forum at Minnetonka City Hall.

2/Crash, boom, bam: Deputy wrecks 33 times in 17 years, but union fights for his job:  As a law officer, former Todd County Deputy Sheriff Mark Grinstead didn’t miss much. Grinstead hit many things — deer, cows, trees, buildings and snow banks, for example. In 17 years, he had 33 wrecks.

3/Veterans Affairs wind turbine, built for $2.3 million, stands dormant:  A $2.3 million federal stimulus project at the V.A. in St. Cloud is giving green energy initiatives a bad name.

4/Government tries to curb waste by eliminating (real) trash cans: One county government wants to eliminate waste, a noble — and necessary — goal. So, some 3,000 workers returned one morning to find their trash cans replaced with what amounts to glorified Big Gulp cups.

5/Fight over rental restrictions heads to MN Supreme Court: Think of it as a lottery with a 30 percent chance of winning. The prize? A city permit authorizing people to be among the lucky property owners on their block allowed to rent their house.

6/The Un-Expendables: Superintendents retire, get rehired with pension and pay: They could be called “The Un-Expendables,” superintendents who retire for a few days before they’re lured back for a sequel at their former jobs — with full salary, benefits, incentives and pension.

7/Taxpayers can’t get a ‘break’ with St. Paul’s artsy stop signs: St. Paul may be predictably progressive, but the powers at City Hall enthusiastically embrace the “1 percent.” The 1 percent, that is, of costs of local government construction projects, under a city ordinance mandating taxpayer-funded public art.

8/Grenade launchers to bandages: ‘It’s there for the asking’: Old tanks, jeeps, artillery and other military leftovers used to end up in city parks. Now, hardware from the Iraq and Afghan wars often winds up in the hands of police and other law enforcement agencies.

9/MN child care providers declare victory with Harris v. Quinn ruling: Minnesota licensed child-care providers declared victory after a landmark Supreme Court ruling, which comes after nine years spent fending off a union drive while operating their small businesses. 

10/City fights citizen watchdog case amid mounting legal fees: You would be hard pressed to put a price on the impact of citizen watchdogs and their role in holding government accountable—except in Victoria.

11/St. Paul bills businesses thousands for light rail work: Just as St. Paul retailers began recovering from an average 30 percent loss in sales during the new $1 billion light rail line’s construction, businesses received a bill for street improvements tied to the construction of the 11-mile-long line.

12/‘Free’ stimulus broadband project costs MN taxpayers millions: “Get connected, stay connected, live connected.” That marketing tagline sums up how Lake County officials manage to keep one of the most expensive federal stimulus broadband projects in the country alive.

13/Now not showing: Minnesota festival freezes out fracking film: The Frozen River Film Festival has iced out — critics say censored — a showing of the critically acclaimed, if controversial in some circles, feature documentary “FrackNation,” setting the stage for a less than artful narrative of what happened and a public relations backlash starring the banished filmmakers.

14/Bird-friendly glass won’t fly on billion dollar NFL stadium: Minnesota Vikings bird-loving fans are flustered the NFL franchise won’t ante up a million bucks for bird-safe glass at the stadium now under construction.

GMO Awareness or Propaganda?

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: December 8, 2014 - 4:37 PM

Five Twin Cities school districts recently held GMO awareness day, but as media and others’ awareness of the event spreads across the Internet, there’s been a backlash.

“My boss and I have been inundated with e-mails and calls from people from around the country and the time it takes to respond to each person is adding a lot to our workloads,” Laura Metzger, Westonka schools director of food and nutrition services emailed me this afternoon.

In a recent piece for Watchdog.org,, I detailed some of the dubious claims made by the school districts to their 56,000 students about the world’s increasing reliance on genetically modified crops and products.

“Though the corporations that sell GMO chemicals and seeds have concluded that GMOs are safe to eat, independently funded research has repeatedly linked GMO consumption to cancers, organ damage, allergies, infertility, and more,” according to  information on the flip side of the Westonka student menu.

In a blog post out today titled “Minnesota schools teach bad science and then cover it up” author James W. Cooper gives the Minneapolis, Hopkins, Orono, Shakopee and Westonka school districts an “F” for the event.

“Despite the fact that these are school systems engaged in education, they are toeing the propaganda line of the Organic Consumers Association that GMO crops are somehow dangerous. This is simply fear-mongering nonsense, as all the major national scientific societies have stated that GM crops are no more harmful than conventional crops,” said Cooper, author of the book “Food Myths Debunked.”

Going well beyond awareness, the schools plan to phase out GMO-free ingredients in student meals, opting for more products like the grass-fed hotdogs featured on awareness day.

“Having the GMO awareness day for our district was to really show that whether you agree with consuming GMOs or not, consumers should have the right to make that choice,” Laura Metzger of  Westonka schools told me.

Cooper panned the schools’ claims as “absolute nonsense.” The author and food expert put it this way: “This propaganda echoed the idea that GM crops are somehow different and that students should be able to choose, when in fact the crops are nutritionally identical, but just higher yielding. In fact, rather than trying to scare students with pseudo-science they might have noted that a recent PLOS One paper found that ‘on average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.’”

Cooper said he tried to reach Bertrand Weber of Minneapolis schools, the media contact for the event, 15 times without success. But it took more than the media to make sure the schools came to an awareness of the controversy they cooked up.

“It is deeply concerning that Minneapolis Public Schools would deliberately and knowingly produce and propagate information that is false, and by all appearances, did not even make an attempt to offer a balanced perspective to students on the GMO issue,” said Perry Aasness, executive director of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council in a letter to Minneapolis schools.

A Blip: Bill Maher Blown Out as Kline Doubles Victory Margin

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: November 6, 2014 - 10:58 AM

This just in on the outcome of the only outside effort to meddle in Minnesota politics this election cycle that managed to get favorable media coverage when launched this fall.

But brace yourself for a spoiler alert on the guy who sees himself as the ultimate spoiler.

HBO politico Bill Maher has conceded that his highly hyped “flip-a-district” campaign to unseat Cong. John Kline in the 2nd congressional district came up short. 

“Well, I guess we picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue. And flipping Republicans. Enjoy it John Kline, at least people are on to you now,” said Maher in concluding the embarrassing electoral effort posted on his website.

In “real time” terms, Maher’s flip-a-district gimmick flopped as Kline coasted to his seventh term in the US House of Representatives. True, Maher wasn’t on the ballot in Kline’s race, but then neither was President Obama.

Just the same, Kline doubled his victory margin over challenger Mike Obermueller in a rematch of the 2012 race—an 18 percent win compared to 8 percent last time.

After Maher’s blow-out loss, some pundits were as hard on the standup's lack of political street smarts as the cable television talking head was in targeting Kline.

“If Maher really had wanted to have a political impact he should have picked a district where enough people actually watch his show to make a difference and where there was a serious change to upend the incumbent,” said David Schultz, a Hamline University political science professor. “The reality is that the flip a district idea was more ratings stunt that real politics.”

On the other hand, the Kline campaign gave Maher credit for being a polarizing influence all the way to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

“The more Minnesotans learned about Bill Maher, the more outraged and offended they were, which could be why he canceled radio interviews in the Twin Cities this week,” said Kline spokesman Troy Young. “His effort, if you can call it that, to flip this district fizzled and it was telling even Berkeley students petitioned to keep Maher and his offensive and disgusting views off their campus.”

In the home stretch of his campaign, Maher linked to an Eva Longoria video endorsing his ill-fated effort embedded in a promo for her documentary “Food Chains.”

“And speaking of food chains, I can’t think of any person lower on the food chain than a guy who would take money from coal companies and then deny man-made climate change. On Tuesday, flip John Kline. Go to flipadistrict.com!”

Ultimately, the lopsided results got the final word, at least until the much anticipated post election edition of "Unreal Time."

“We knew that this election was never going to be about Bill Maher. While the initial attention and fundraising boost was a positive, nobody was making a decision based on whether they liked Maher. It wasn’t a distraction, but over the course of the campaign as a whole, it’s difficult to characterize it as anything more than a blip,” said Obermueller campaign spokesman Kevin George.

Supreme Stakes for Minnesota Faith-Based Employers

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: June 29, 2014 - 6:35 PM

Quick question. Did you know Minnesota has more cases than almost any state riding on the outcome of the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case coming out on Monday?  

That's what I thought. For-profit Minnesota employers have received 8 out of 35 temporary injunctions granted by federal courts to businesses across the country under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (See Sibelius v. Hobby Lobby and Sibelius v. Conestoga Wood.)

Here's a slice of what's at stake in the religious liberties case that will make headlines--no matter which way the justices rule--in excerpts from my recent post for Watchdog.org Minnesota Bureau.  

                  Under the Affordable Care Act, Doboszenki and Sons, a Loretto ecavation company, must provide health coverage in employee medical plans that contradicts the owners’ religious beliefs — or face thousands of dollars in Internal Revenue Service fines.

Doug Doboszenski maintains the ACA violates his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act through the employer requirement to provide mandated contraceptive, abortion-inducing drugs and elective sterilization coverage.

“As a small business owner and just a regular citizen, you don’t feel you have that much control over this stuff. However, somebody has to do something about this,” Doboszenski said. “I don’t believe in the way the government is going. I don’t believe a company like ours should be forced to pay for things we don’t believe in.”

The suburban Twin Cities company filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, obtaining a temporary injunction against the HHS mandate last November in U.S. District Court.

“I have three things I was worried about in doing this lawsuit. How’s the IRS, and how’s the government, going to retaliate, that was first and foremost,” Doboszenski said. “Second, the last few years haven’t been kind to the construction industry and it took a $10,000 bill for lawyer fees to put this in place. Thirdly, there’s a possibility some employees will be happy and a possibility some will be upset about it.”

“I think of all the states, the most for-profit company cases have been brought in Minnesota,” said Erick Kaardal, an attorney representing seven companies that won temporary federal injunctions. “I attribute that to the vibrant Christian community here. We represent Catholic-owned businesses and also Protestant-owned businesses and they’re very upset that their religious liberties are being violated by the federal government in this way.”

Business owners may object to different parts of the required coverage, but all maintain the mandate violates their free exercise of religion.

“This isn’t about cost. We provide health care for our employees and we love to. We’ve done it forever and we continue to do it,” said Doug Erickson, who provides medical coverage for about 60 employees at two Twin Cities auto dealerships. “It’s really about a small piece of this bill and the fact that we don’t agree with some of the language of abortion-inducing medication or drugs.”

Even after obtaining a federal injunction, however, Erickson ran into another obstacle. Erickson’s attorney with the Liberty Institute, a national legal organization that defends religious liberty rights, said the businessman’s insurance provider expressed concerns about amending the company’s medical policy to reflect the exemption. Despite winning in federal court, Erickson’s company policy must continue to provide the mandated medical coverage he opposes for now.

Other companies are also keeping a close watch as the current Supreme Court term winds to a close. Kaardal said several businesses are standing by to file injunctions from the ACA mandate on the grounds of sincere religious objections, depending on the outcome of the Hobby Lobby case.

Interested observers can follow the final decisions of the Supreme Court's current session live at SCOTUS blog. 

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