Last month, while Minnesota's new health insurance exchange site was scrambling to fix glitches and under fire from critics, its director was on vacation.
MNsure director April Todd-Malmlov took a two-week vacation to Costa Rica around Thanksgiving. Gov. Mark Dayton defended her right to take a pre-scheduled trip, but critics of the fledgling health insurance exchange pounced.
The conservative group Watchdog.org put out a press release Thursday, condemning her absence while "thousands of frustrated Minnesotans were notified about glitches and errors in their applications on the state insurance exchange."
Asked about the trip, the governor said Todd-Malmlov reports to the MNsure board, not the governor, so he has little control over her vacation plans.
"I know that the executive director worked extraordinarily hard for months now, probably all of last year and my understanding was this was a long-planned vacation where financial commitments were made," Dayton said. "I don't know enough of the details, but it was obviously a critical time for MNsure and it is ultimately her responsibility."
MNsure's woes have continued into December, as some applicants still struggle to navigate system that was supposed to make shopping for health insurance easier and more affordable. But tens of thousands of Minnesotans now have health insurance through the online marketplace and the state expects thousands more to sign up between now and Dec. 23, the deadline to lock in health coverage for January.
"We're past the point where MNsure's problems are acceptable," Dayton said. "People who are calling should get prompt, efficient service...Fix the glitches."
MNsure spokeswoman Jenni Bowring-McDonough said Todd-Malmlov remained in contact with staff and "engaged on a daily basis with MNsure" throughout her vacation.
A similarly-timed tropical vacation cost the executive director of Maryland's health insurance exchange her job. Rebecca Pearce resigned last week amid criticism of her week long Caribbean vacation.
Worries about Minnesota's new online health insurance marketplace are keeping Gov. Mark Dayton awake at night.
The state has just three more weeks to ensure the new MNsure site is ready for the Jan. 1 deadline to begin connecting thousands of uninsured and under-insured Minnesotans to health care coverage.
As many as one out of every five Minnesotans may eventually buy health insurance through MNsure, which is supposed to make shopping for health insurance cheaper and easier. But in the two and a half months since the site launched, it has been plagued by glitches, crashes and long waits for customer service.
“It’s, in my mind, past the point where these kind of snags should have been resolved," Dayton told reporters Wednesday, not long after he told a crowd at the Minnesota Association of Counties that MNsure is the one issue that keeps him awake at night.
"I’m mindful of how complicated the project is, and that we’re doing better than the federal government," Dayton said. But "we're three weeks away. I am concerned."
Dayton said he has "expressed my sense of urgency" to MNsure officials.
MNsure officials say they're doing their best to ensure the governor, and anyone else shopping for health insurance, rests easy. Although MNsure board chairman Brian Beutner says he's spent plenty of sleepless nights himself.
"It keeps me up at night as well, and I know it does the MNsure team, because I'm getting and emails and phone calls from them at midnight because they're literally working around the the clock."
About 25,000 people have enrolled in MNsure so far, including another 3,000 who signed up last week, he said. Buetner said the main focus now is on the 40,000 people who have set up profiles on MNsure, but have not yet picked out a plan or paid their first premium. The first plans go active on Jan. 1, but the open enrollment period runs through the end of March.
Baird Helgeson and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
Minnesota's rebounding economy has brought the state a $1.08 billion surplus for the remainder of the two year budget cycle, according to a new state economic forecast.
That's good news for state leaders, who had pinned their hopes on the state steadily pulling itself out of the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression.
Gov. Mark Dayton said that he will not make any final decisions until he sees an updated forecast next year but if the state has extra money, he wants to cut new business to business taxes and give the middle class a tax break.
Some of the money is already out the door. The first $246 million must be used to complete repayment of the K-12 school property tax recognition shift. Additionally, $15 million will be transferred to the state airports fund, restoring money originally borrowed in 2008. This forecast completes repayment of all accounting shifts from prior budget solutions. That leaves a bottom line surplus of $825 million, budget officials said.
House Speaker Paul Thissen, asked about Dayton's idea of tax cuts if the surplus holds, says "we have to look at the whole totality" of the choices in front of them.Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said the DFL controlled House will consider the tax cut proposals but did not immediately embrace the idea.
"What's going to be better for growing Minnesota's middle class," Thissen said.
Senate Deputy Majority Leader Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, said "it's too early to say" whether the DFL Senate would support ending the business-to-business taxes as Dayton proposed.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that if Dayton follows through on the idea of tax cuts he would find a willing partner in the Senate Republicans.
Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter said the forecast highlights the state’s recovery compared to the rest of the nation. On the national level, economists are seeing slower growth than expected and more uncertainty caused by continued political budget and spending showdowns.
Minnesota is “one of the leading states in the country in terms of economic performance,” Schowalter said.
Dayton says he would only follow through with his tax cut proposal if the state has a surplus in the forecast that will come out in February. Budget forecasts tend to shift significantly between those two economic predictions. (See history of those shifts here.)
Gov. Mark Dayton and other Democratic state officeholders picked up a new union endorsement.
The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees endorsed Dayton, along with Lori Swanson for Attorney General and Rebecca Otto for State Auditor.
“Mark Dayton has shown tremendous political courage to get our state’s economy growing again,” said Carrie Wasley, chairman of MAPE’s political action committee. “Throughout his first term, governor Dayton made tough decisions that benefit all Minnesotans, preserve our middle class, and get our economy moving in the right direction.”
Wasley said Swanson “has a proven track record of fairness and leadership on consumer issues facing Minnesotans.”
Of Otto, Wasley added: “Whether it’s providing oversight of state employee pension investments, identifying ways to make government more efficient or finding innovative budget saving solutions, Auditor Otto does not shy away from making the right choice for taxpayers – she has earned another four year term.”
The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees is a 13,000-member union of state employees.
Republican candidate for governor Scott Honour earned $1.7 million last year and paid about $636,000 in state and federal taxes, according to the federal tax form summary he voluntarily disclosed.
He earned far more than any other gubernatorial candidate and paid far more in taxes. Honour paid more in taxes than any of the other candidates earned, according to tax information others have released.
Honour, an investment banker, also gave far more to charity than any of his rivals. According to the federal documents, he contributed $78,876 to charity.
Honour joins DFL Gov. Mark Dayton as well as Republicans Jeff Johnson and Dave Thompson in voluntarily disclosing his earning, tax payments and charitable deductions. Republican candidate Kurt Zellers released some tax information but not what he gave to charity. Republican Marty Seifert refused to release his tax information.
In addition to his income tax payments, Honour also paid $147,083 in property taxes last year.
Honour has not said how much of his own money he will put into his campaign or if he will personally contribute.
Dayton, an heir to the Dayton's department store fortune, put more than $3 million into his 2010 campaign for governor in 2010 but has said he will not self finance next year's re-election bid.
Image: Scott Honour