Capitol Comments: Theft under gov’t watch unacceptable

Published 8:45 pm Friday, June 21, 2024

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Capitol Comments by Peggy Bennett

Have you ever had something of yours stolen or been cheated out of money? How did that make you feel? Angry? Frustrated? Cheated?

Peggy Bennett

That’s how many Minnesota taxpayers feel right now. Minnesota just had hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars stolen right out from under the nose of our own government.

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Recently, Minnesota’s nonpartisan and highly respected Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) unveiled a pair of reports that showed hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars were stolen by fraudsters or lost through lack of agency oversight.

Minnesota’s Frontline Worker Pay Program was the first to receive an OLA review. Astonishingly, OLA auditors found that 41% of the program’s applicants were not verified. The state agency in charge neglected to comply with best practices for verification. Ultimately, it approved payments to ineligible workers and applicants with fraud indicators without investigation, including deceased applicants, people using temporary email addresses and people who lived out of our state.

As a result, the Minnesota frontline workers who worked in person during the pandemic and earned this special bonus received a check for about half the amount that they should have. That is unconscionable.

A similar, yet more egregious, theft of taxpayer money was found in the OLA’s audit into the Minnesota Department of Education’s (MDE) oversight of the Feeding Our Future program. Federal prosecutors have called this the biggest pandemic fraud case in the nation — at least $250 million (and probably more) stolen.

Red flags were evident long before most of the fraud took place. Many voices, including House and Senate Republicans, had been calling out the red flags and offering solutions. Sadly, these voices were ignored by both the Democratic majority and Governor Walz.

They knew something was wrong but did nothing. It leads me to wonder if this was more about getting votes than really helping people.

We have had fully Democratic-controlled government agencies for years who’s lack of oversight, woke policies and outright dysfunction have enabled fraudsters to steal hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. This is either pure incompetence or purposely turning a blind eye.

Every stolen dollar means less for the people in our state who really need it. Unacceptable!

What should be a wakeup call for our government has instead become an island of excuses. “It’s not our fault. The criminals did it!” This might be an acceptable excuse if such significant government dysfunction and incompetence weren’t involved. Yes, the criminals did the theft, but our government left the bank door wide open and security guards napping.

I’m sorry, but even my first-grade students would have known better than to use that excuse.

If our government won’t recognize its own deficiencies, how will it ever improve?

Here’s are some first steps to fixing this serious government failure:

First and foremost: accountability. Those government bureaucrats who didn’t do their jobs and allowed this to happen should be fired. It’s a governor’s job to oversee the state agencies. The “buck stops” there. If Gov. Walz isn’t going to take responsibility and quit his job, then he certainly needs to make sure that those bureaucrats involved — from the top down — are held responsible and removed.

Have you noticed that government agencies are really good at holding the little guy or gal, school, small businesses, etc. accountable for every little thing and every last cent? However, when it comes to the government making a mistake or miscalculation (or worse!) nothing happens. It’s time for government agencies and those who work there to be held accountable and held to the same standards they expect of everyone else.

Secondly, the Legislature needs to stop pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into nonprofit organizations (like Feeding Our Future), at least until we have demonstratable and working fraud-proof oversight in place. Currently, there is less accountability and oversight of the use of taxpayer dollars with nonprofit organizations than there is for government agencies.

Incredibly, already knowing about this extensive fraud issue and lack of accountability, the Democratic majority still gave hundreds of millions of new dollars to nonprofit organizations over the last two years — more than any other budget year. That’s just plain irresponsible.

Lastly, in addition to fraud oversight, nonprofit organizations that receive government funding should be held accountable for the work they’re doing. Is it effective? Legislation I authored and was recently passed into law has the goal of doing just that with education grant spending. This model should be expanded to all nonprofit government spending — and even government itself. Government spending should be accountable for its results.

This theft and waste of taxpayer dollars under our government’s watch is just plain unacceptable. We have nursing homes closing, kids who can’t read and crumbling roads — not to mention Minnesota families who are stressed out by high taxes, high government fees, and the high costs of just about everything. Minnesotans deserve better. Let’s get this fixed.

Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea is the District 23A representative.