Daily Digest: Lobbying, fraud and road salt

Welcome to Wednesday. Here’s your Daily Digest to get you through the middle of the week.

1. A lot of money in the lobbying pipeline. Energy Partners spent just over $11 million lobbying Minnesota state government in 2018 — almost all of it advocating before the Public Utilities Commission — according to data released this week by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. Enbridge also topped the list last year, when it spent $5.3 million. For the past several years Enbridge has advocated before the PUC for the highly contentious Line 3 oil pipeline, a $2.6 billion project to replace a corroding pipeline across northern Minnesota with a larger pipe along a different route. The commission approved the project last summer. Many of the other largest spenders were also energy companies and utilities that advocated before the PUC, including Xcel Energy, CenterPoint Energy and Freeborn Wind Energy. (MPR News)

2. Auditor says law enforcement should investigate human services fraud. The responsibility for investigating fraud in Minnesota’s child-care assistance program should be transferred from the state’s social services agency to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), according to a recommendation issued Tuesday by Minnesota Legislative Auditor James Nobles. In a letter to state lawmakers, Nobles said investigations of alleged fraud in the state-subsidized Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) are criminal in nature and are more in line with the mission of the BCA than that of the Department of Human Services, which currently handles the investigations. “The CCAP Investigations Unit conducts criminal investigations,” Nobles wrote. “That mission is more congruent with the mission of BCA than it is with the mission of [Human Services].” The recommendation follows a report from Nobles’ office last week that found significant levels of fraud in the $254 million child-care assistance program, as well as distrust between the program’s fraud investigators and the department’s inspector general, who oversees fraud investigations across several branches of the agency. (Star Tribune)

3. Putting Minnesota on a salt-free diet With the arrival of warmer temperatures, Minnesotans may be putting their bags of de-icer into storage. But all the salt they sprinkled on the ground all winter in the name of safety? It’s hanging around. In fact, it’ll be here in July — and much, much longer than that. The sodium chloride, or salt, in most de-icers is now running off into lakes and streams with the meltwater, and it does not break down or disappear. And with no good way to treat it, the chloride has been accumulating in Minnesota’s waters, slowly poisoning them. Concerned about this emerging pollution problem, state lawmakers are devising a new way to break Minnesota’s winter salt habit. Bills currently in House and Senate committees would create a statewide program to certify the professionals who apply salt to sidewalks and parking lots, so they know how to best control ice without using excessive salt. The certification would cost individual contractors up to $350. (Star Tribune)

4. Senate GOP to prioritize private-school scholarship plan. Minnesota Senate Republicans emphasized Tuesday that they plan to prioritize a bill creating a new tax credit for individuals or corporations that contribute to private-school scholarships for disadvantaged students. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Senate Taxes Committee Chair Roger Chamberlain made a joint case for the program, and the bill to accomplish it was put on path for inclusion in the broader state budget. Chamberlain, of Lino Lakes, said it would allow for up to $35 million in overall credits per year to leverage scholarships for families who otherwise can’t afford tuition and who might be struggling in their public school setting. The credits would be for 70 percent of the donation, capped at $30,000 for a married couple’s tax return or up to $105,000 for a corporate entity. (MPR News)

5. Service crisis on buses and LRT. Metro Transit’s new general manager is rolling out a list of improvements to buses and trains in response to what he says is a service crisis across the agency. Wes Kooistra said riders will find more cops, more snow shoveling, more bus routes and more people ready to take their complaints about Metro Transit. An increase in cleaning staff should also mean cleaner trains. Kooistra rolled out details of his plans at a press briefing in Minneapolis Tuesday, but said some improvements have already started. Kooistra said his agency had been stashing funds to handle an anticipated “funding cliff” looming for Metro Transit’s finances that could come by 2023. Now, he’s decided to spend some of it. “We are falling short of meeting customer expectations for service quality. That’s one of the outcomes of doing this. So now we’re balancing customer demands and customer needs with fiscal management,” Kooistra said. (MPR News)

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