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Human Services commissioner pledges statewide view

Lucinda Jesson, Gov. Mark Dayton's selection for state Human Services commissioner.

By Don Davis

State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's new human services commissioner promises to spend a lot of time outside the Twin Cities.

Lucinda Jesson, a Hamline University law professor, said she and her husband like traveling the state, but she has missed three northwestern Minnesota counties and a few other areas like International Falls.

"You will see me," she said in a Forum Communications interview. "I want to make greater Minnesota a focus."

Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday named Jesson, 52, to head one of the state's most complex and expensive state agencies, the Department of Human Services. It provides poor and disabled Minnesotans welfare, health-care and other services.

"When we are making hard decisions ... we are going to do that focusing on the people the agency serves," Jesson said.

And there will be hard decisions. Since health and human services spending, mostly in Jesson's department, use more than 40 percent of the state's budget it is a likely target for deep cuts as state policymakers tackle a $6.2 billion budget deficit.

Dayton has said he wants to raise taxes on rich Minnesotans to help the budget, but also agrees with Republicans who control the Legislature that cuts will be needed. In his inaugural speech last week he said the cuts would be painful.

The Democratic governor said Jesson brings skills needed to take on the department's problems.

"Addressing the significant challenges before us requires her expertise in health policy and law, her experience managing large organizations and her ability to bring creativity and innovation to an agency that is on the front lines, working directly with thousands of Minnesotans," Dayton said.

His first order was to have Jesson speed up implementation of an expanded Medicaid health program for the poor. Dayton signed up for the new federal funds less than a week ago.

Jesson's other priority is preparing a budget while preserving a safety net for Minnesotans. "We will be making some really tough budget decisions."

The new commissioner said she brings advantages to the job: "I think I am coming in as an outsider, but some knowledge of health care."

As a lawyer in the attorney general's office during the 1990s, she worked with the Department of Human Services and as deputy Hennepin county attorney she dealt with social services issues.

One of her goals is to educate baby boomers on the importance planning for long-term care. She also wants to make sure clients of her department's programs are not defrauding the state.

"Certainly, there have been reports of fraud in the past," she said. "We need to be much more diligent monitoring for that and go after folks who are stealing money."

While Jesson is a Twin Cities woman, she pledged to keep the rest of the state in the forefront.

Jesson said she keeps a map of where she travels and plans to make sure more counties are marked as being visited.

"I want to be out there talking to county commissioners to see how things are going in their areas," she said.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., parent company of the South Washington County Bulletin.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.