When I got the list of my constituents with unclaimed property being held by the state of Minnesota two months ago, I was astonished at the amount — a staggering $7 million in lost funds belonged to families from my House district of 39,500 people. I naturally assumed the people on the unclaimed property list would be hard to find, since some insurance company, bank or past employer had been unable to locate the person with unclaimed property. Boy, was I wrong. It was a walk in the park to find the owners of unclaimed property. Over the course of three weeks, allotting a mere 10 minutes per day, I located and notified local residents with more than $303,000 in unclaimed funds. That’s in excess of $100,000 per hour.

Statewide, the total amount of unclaimed or lost property being held by the Minnesota Department of Commerce is mind-blowing — a record $650 million — almost three times as much as it was a mere decade ago. This represents a whopping $125 in unclaimed funds for every one of Minnesota’s 5.2 million citizens.

However, what I learned next is what really surprised me.

Minnesota law does not require the Commerce Department to take any affirmative steps to find owners. So the money just sits there. And sits there. And grows in the state’s coffers.

To me, what the state is doing is like finding a lost wallet full of cash, with an ID in it, but not calling the owner to let him know you found his wallet.

In my 180-minute experiment to find local folks with lost or unclaimed property, I found three things most owners had in common. First, the owners were amazingly easy to find, often as a result of a quick Google or address search. Second, most owners were completely unaware they had lost funds being held by the state. Many owners were children of deceased parents who had bank accounts or insurance proceeds. Some had changed jobs and had been entitled to additional pay or benefits. Finally, almost none of the owners were aware of the state’s one-pronged effort to reunite them with their funds via a website called www.MissingMoney.com.

The state’s use of that website is the online equivalent of occasionally stapling a sign to a utility pole saying, “We found a lost wallet.” Even though we know the name of the owner and his or her last known address, the state waits for the owner to find us using the website.

To its credit, the Commerce Department does take the website on the road.

For example, it sets up computer stations for 10 days in the Education Building at the State Fair, and Minnesotans can type in their names to find out if they have lost funds.

I believe we have a responsibility to do more, especially since we know the names and addresses of the owners.

To help reunite people with the property that’s owed to them, I have introduced H.F. 1693, which will bring an entirely different approach to the effort. This bill would address this problem by doing three things:

First, my legislation would expand on an old-fashioned idea that worked well — running ads in local newspapers listing the names of local folks with unclaimed funds. South Dakota, which still does it this way, gets hundreds of calls per day for weeks after ads run in local papers.

Second, the legislation would call on the Commerce Department to reach out to owners of lost property, most of whom are easy to find and are unaware they have unclaimed funds. This could be done by current staff members, by interns or by volunteers — whatever works. But it needs to be done. To the extent that there are modest costs associated with doing so, there is no need to look to taxpayers to pay for this effort. The department testified that it could use unclaimed funds coming in from insurance companies that cannot be tied to any particular owner and that now go into the Unclaimed Property Fund.

Finally, my legislation requires the Commerce Department to provide each legislator with a list of local residents with unclaimed property, so that other legislators can alert constituents just like I am doing.

Plain and simple, it is not right for the state to be holding more than half a billion dollars’ worth of Minnesotans’ money and not be actively engaged in reuniting people with it. This bill offers a common-sense solution to the problem at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

It is about time the state does a better job of getting wallets back to their rightful owners.

 

Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, is a member of the Minnesota House.