House committee votes to remove grant program from Commerce

Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman (right) testifies before the House Commerce Committee  as GOP Rep. Tony Albright listens. Tom Scheck/MPR Photo

A  Minnesota House committee voted Wednesday to move oversight of energy assistance grants away from the Department of Commerce and the supervision of its commissioner, Mike Rothman.

Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, says the bill is needed because recent news reports and state auditors’ findings show the Commerce department continued funding Community Action of Minneapolis despite concerns with how it was spending money.

“It is this pattern of ineffective administration of both the federal and state appropriations that makes it necessary for this body to take action to ensure that these programs are fulfilling their mandates under the law,” Albright told the committee.

MPR News reported in December that Rothman and other Commerce officials disregarded concerns raised by department staff about Community Action’s administration of energy assistance funds.

The state forced the Minneapolis nonprofit to close in September after news reports revealed a state audit found CEO Bill Davis misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money. Davis has denied any wrongdoing.

The Commerce department and a court-appointed receiver are currently investigating the finances of Community Action of Minneapolis. Rothman also has asked the Legislative Auditor to examine how he handled the issue.

During Wednesday’s Commerce Committee hearing, Rothman testified he took extraordinary steps to make sure taxpayer money was properly spent. He said Albright’s bill to transfer oversight of energy grants from his department to the Minnesota Department of Human Services could jeopardize assistance to thousands of low income Minnesotans.

“This bill needlessly gambles with the security of 150,000 Minnesotans and is fiscally unsound,” Rothman said.

Rothman said it would be “nearly impossible” to train staff and transfer the necessary technology to another department by July.

But Republicans disagreed.

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, called some of Rothman’s statements “misleading at best.” Davids added: “I think Human Services could do it and I don’t think this bill puts anyone at risk.”

Several others on the Commerce Committee said it’s not clear how shifting responsibility from one department to another would work.

Albright was unable to say how much the transfer would cost or if employees working on energy assistance and weatherization at the Commerce department lose their jobs.

Democrats also said the bill was driven by politics. Rothman and Davis served on the DFL State Party’s executive committee at the same time.

Others said the measure’s scope was too broad.

“I’m really wondering whether if your goal is to really use a sledgehammer when a small tack hammer might be more effective,” said Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis.

The Commerce Committee approved the bill on a 12-7 vote. It now moves to the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee.