GOP senators grill commissioner over MNsure, Minneapolis nonprofit woes

Published 10:00 am Friday, May 1, 2015

ST. PAUL (AP) — Senate Republicans put pressure on one of Gov. Mark Dayton’s commissioners Thursday, arguing his handling of MNsure and an embattled Minneapolis nonprofit make him unfit for a second term.

Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman faces a rockier path to a second term after being appointed to the office in 2011. But even the Republicans who took issue with his tenure said he’ll likely skate through to Senate confirmation, where Democrats outnumber them.

A Senate committee voted 8-3 to recommend Rothman for a second term.

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The hearing gave GOP lawmakers another shot to rehash their concerns with Rothman, primarily centering on the Commerce Department’s role in struggles with the state’s health insurance exchange.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, suggested the department strong-armed an insurance company to offer lower rates on the exchange in its first year, leading to its decision to exit MNsure after a year of heavy losses.

Public filings show Commerce Department staff asked PreferredOne three times to lower its prices. Rothman told lawmakers the department was just doing its job as an insurance regulator, trying to nail down the best prices in a new insurance market filled with uncertainty.

Gazelka didn’t buy it.

“I just feel like there’s too much dodging, deflection,” he said before voting against Rothman’s recommendation.

Other Republicans questioned whether political ties influenced Rothman and the Commerce Department not to step in sooner at Community Action of Minneapolis, which showed signs of financial issues for years until an audit last year revealed its executive director had spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on trips and other perks.

Rothman stressed the department had put in extra safeguards to watch over the nonprofit after its own audits uncovered $1.3 million in unrelated misspent funds and a large backlog of unprocessed applications from low-income residents seeking heating grants.

Asked whether the Commerce Department handled those situations properly, Rothman answered with one word.

“Absolutely,” he said.