MN lawmakers sought deep COVID audit; they won’t get it

Lawmakers call for close examination of state's COVID response

Walz, state officials, business owners.
Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a news conference with Health Department Commissioner Jan Malcolm, Employment Commissioner Steve Grove, restaurant owners Andrew Zimmern, Stephanie Shimp of the Blue Plate and John Puckett of Punch Pizza about the outbreak of COVID-19 in St. Paul on March 16, 2020. As part of the new budget, Minnesota lawmakers called for a top-to-bottom review of actions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP 2020

Minnesota’s independent legislative auditor has no plans to satisfy a request by lawmakers to carry out a comprehensive study of the state’s COVID-19 response.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said the scope of the request — included in the new state budget — combined with other projects his office is undertaking make it difficult to do the extensive review.

“I don’t think we really have the capacity to do that. It would be large to say the least,” Nobles said in an interview. “And there really wasn’t much discussion at all with the legislative auditor’s office about that request.”

The nudge to Nobles came in a single paragraph in a 67-page, must-pass state government finance bill. Walz signed it in late June in time to head off a partial government shutdown.

Text noting a legislative auditor review of COVID-19 response
Section 21 of the Minnesota appropriations bill for 2022 and 2023 to request the legislative auditor to conduct a review of the state's response to COVID-19.
Office of the Revisor of Statutes

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, sponsored the legislation and advocated for inclusion of the COVID-19 review during her negotiations with the DFL-led House.

“It is fair to the taxpayers to say ‘We did our best. It was a tough time. It was a very tough time.’ So everybody did their best. But it’s OK to look back and say: ‘Did we measure up to that? Are there some lessons we learned? Are there some areas we could have done better in?’ ” Kiffmeyer said as the special session concluded last week. “Let us learn from this very difficult situation by taking a look back.”

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Kiffmeyer said an audit would provide some of those answers.

“I’m expecting it to go forward,” she said.

Nobles said he is willing to hear lawmakers out but would have a tough time fitting it in amid other projects they already put on his plate and required financial audits of state agencies his staff conducts.

“This one is so large that it would just make us drop a lot of other things that are also important to legislators and the public,” Nobles said.

Under the bill, testing, vaccination, public outreach, contracting and predictive modeling are all areas that lawmakers who made the request want under the microscope.

Nobles does have a limited COVID-related report ready for release later this week. It examines state contracts with two companies for coronavirus testing and the rates they've charged. He said more reviews tied to COVID spending are in the works.

State Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, sits on the Legislative Audit Commission, a bicameral panel that usually picks topics for evaluation.

He said aspects of the broader COVID-19 request included in the budget depend on evaluative techniques and statistical expertise that aren’t routine for Nobles’ staff. That includes an assessment of the complex modeling and forecasting of how coronavirus could spread and how lethal it might become.

“It sounds like about two or three Ph.D. theses,” Hansen said.

Hansen added that lawmakers who sought the review circumvented the normal process of going through the commission. He said it strikes him as a political exercise by Republicans hoping for ammunition ahead of the 2022 elections when Walz is on the ballot again.

“Over the years I’ve been on the audit commission, I’ve watched a number of topics be presented or mandated with the idea that ‘Oh my gosh there’s going to be a gotcha here,’ ” Hansen said. “And that people have strongly held beliefs there will be an outcome that comes from the audit and then the audit comes and it’s not the outcome they anticipated.”

One candidate for governor, former Republican state Sen. Scott Jensen, has made clear the COVID-19 response will be a front-and-center issue. His campaign launch video begins with a Walz lookalike playing doctor in an operating room as Jensen, a doctor, narrates.

“His micromanaging has destroyed livelihoods,” Jensen says of Walz in the ad. “His blind faith in bad models have kept families apart and businesses closed.”

Nobles said the likelihood a report could be brought into a political sphere doesn’t affect his decision here.

“We work in a political environment and we touch on a lot of topics that potentially can be used for political purposes,” Nobles said. “So we know how to navigate in that environment.”