Jul 22, 2021

Axios Twin Cities

Good morning! Thursday is upon us.

  • Highs will be in the 80s, and the air quality warning remains in effect.

Situational awareness: The Minneapolis Park Board voted for a second time last night to reject a plan to reduce Hiawatha Golf Course to nine holes after a contentious public debate over how to sustainably manage the low-lying course while preserving it for its historical significance for Black golfers. (Star Tribune)

  • Speaking of golf, the 3M Open tees off in Blaine today.

Today's newsletter is 868 words, a 3 1/2-minute read.

1 big thing: Inside Minnesota's COVID-19 testing contracts

IBX's spit test processing facility in Oakdale, Minnesota. Photo: Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via Getty Images

A new investigation is raising questions about Minnesota's COVID-19 testing program, the pricey contracts it awarded to private companies as the pandemic raged and how much of those costs will be passed on to taxpayers.

What's new: APM Reports dug through droves of public records and found that the state "relied on no-bid contracts for companies backed by private equity, regulatory shortcuts, and a complicated payment structure" to get the program off the ground.

Why it matters: The program was expensive, totaling $130 million so far, and the two private companies that secured most of that funding — Vault Health and IBX — faced no competition or public vetting before the contracts were inked.

  • The deals they struck with the state "will eventually pass tens of millions of dollars in testing costs on to the public, either through tax hikes or higher health insurance costs," APM notes.

Reality check: Widespread access to testing was essential to tracking the virus' spread and saving lives.

  • Many public health experts have lauded Minnesota's testing effort as an overall success, and a number of other states scrambled to expand capacity through similar avenues.

Yes, but: The emergency agreements made it difficult to track how much the companies are actually billing, especially to private insurers.

  • And a decision to skip federal authorization for IBX's spit tests means there isn't good public data about how accurate they are at identifying asymptomatic cases.

What they're saying: State officials and company representatives defended the contracts to APM, arguing that they allowed Minnesota to significantly increase its testing capacity at a crucial time.

  • They noted that the decisions were made as states rushed to launch mass-testing programs without much federal coordination or support.

The other side: Republican state Sen. Michelle Benson, who has previously raised questions about the agreement, said the report "makes it clear that something needs to change about the way we as a state handle these types of contracts."

The bottom line: Sixteen months have passed, and we still have no idea how much the testing really costs — or how accurate the spit tests are for asymptomatic carriers.

  • Costs, and stakes, could rise heading into the fall, as Delta and other variants threaten to drive a surge in cases.

Go deeper with the full investigation.

2. Catch up quick: Good news for beauty lovers

Target's new in-store Ulta Beauty concept. Image courtesy of Target

💄Ulta Beauty sections are coming to a Target near you this fall. (KSTP)

🗳️ The St. Paul DFL endorsed Mayor Melvin Carter's re-election bid with 89% of delegates' support. The catch? He didn't have any competition. (Full results)

⚖️ Minnesota could receive $337 million to combat the opioid epidemic over the next 18 years under another massive settlement announced Wednesday. (Star Tribune/New York Times)

📚 St. Paul is set to close some elementary schools, starting in 2022, due to enrollment declines. (Pioneer Press)

📰 Former Star Tribune metro editor Maria Douglas Reeve has been named editor of the Houston Chronicle. (Houston Chronicle)

3. Tweet du jour: A much more relaxing commute

A very summer-friendly proposal has found fans on Twitter in this heat wave.

  • 🍩 Our take: We'd happily trade our wheels for a float tube.
4. Hortman won't act on Thompson allegations yet

State Rep. John Thompson and House Speaker Melissa Hortman. Photos: Minnesota Legislature

Don't expect House Democrats to take action to expel or punish embattled state Rep. John Thompson anytime soon.

Driving the news: House Speaker Melissa Hortman indicated Wednesday that she'll wait until any ethics complaints or court proceedings are completed to take action against the St. Paul Democrat.

State of play: Hortman, along with other DFL leaders, have called on Thompson to resign over a series of domestic abuse allegations that recently came to light.

  • Thompson, who hasn't been convicted of domestic violence, denies wrongdoing and has so far refused to step down.
  • On Wednesday, following a conviction on an unrelated misdemeanor charge, he said he needed a few days to make a decision, Fox9 reports.

What she's saying: In a letter to House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, Hortman cited House protocol and guidance from legal counsel. It wasn't clear how Wednesday's court proceeding would impact her timing.

The other side: Daudt called Hortman's response disappointing and said in a statement that Democrats' resignation calls "ring hollow when they refuse to take any steps to hold [Thompson] accountable."

Of note: Hortman did move to strip GOP Rep. Matt Grossell of his committee assignments based on police reports related to a drunken altercation at an area hospital in 2019.

What's next: The House Ethics Committee will hear another, unrelated complaint filed against Thompson on Friday.

5. 1 fair thing to go: Can you find the secret message?

The 2021 State Fair's commemorative art by Kevin Cannon. Image courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair

Break out your magnifying glass. The Minnesota State Fair's 2021 commemorative art has been unveiled, and there's a special treat for eagle-eyed observers.

State of play: The state fair commissions local artists each year to create fair-themed art for the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

  • This year's creation, by Minneapolis cartoonist and illustrator Kevin Cannon, is a highly detailed, jam-packed watercolor map of the fairgrounds.
  • It'll be on display at the Fine Arts Center when the fair opens next month.

The intrigue: There's reportedly a "secret message" hidden throughout the painting.

  • Audrey and Torey have yet to spot it on the smaller digital version. We'll have to wait and check out the full-sized art in person next month!

Of note: Cannon's art was commissioned for 2020, but only required minor updates for 2021, like adding a streamer with the fair's new tagline "The Great Minnesota Get-Back-Together."

Check out the full art and a look at Cannon's creative process here.

Don't forget: Today is the last day to enter our giveaway on our Instagram @AxiosTwinCities.

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