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Walz chooses Lourey to head state Human Services

January 3, 2019
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Sarah Strommen, currently an assistant commissioner at the Department of Natural Resources, answers questions after Gov.-elect Tim Walz announced she will lead the DNR, the first woman appointed, during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019 at Bill Sorg's Dairy Farm in Hastings, Minn. (Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via AP)

HASTINGS, Minn. (AP) — Gov.-elect Tim Walz named state Sen. Tony Lourey on Thursday to take over Minnesota largest state agency, the Department of Human Services, which is responsible for nearly one-third of the state’s spending.

Lourey was among seven commissioners Walz named Thursday as the Democratic former congressman continues filling his administration before taking office Monday. Walz still has eight spots left in his cabinet and said he planned additional announcements Friday.

Walz also promoted Department of Natural Resources Assistant Commissioner Sarah Strommen to head the agency that protects Minnesota’s outdoors, passing over Commissioner Tim Landwehr, an appointee of Gov. Mark Dayton who had hoped to keep his job. Walz did retain Jan Malcolm as health commissioner. She will be serving under her third governor; she also held the post under Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Walz spoke at a dairy farm near Hastings to highlight his pledge to bridge the gap between rural, suburban and urban communities. He named Minnesota Farmers Union lobbyist Thom Peterson as agriculture commissioner. He named Laura Bishop, chief sustainability and corporate responsibility officer for Best Buy, to lead the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Career employee Janet Johnson was promoted to lead the Bureau of Mediation Services. Rebecca Lucero, public policy director at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, will lead Human Rights.

Walz called Lourey a “passionate and visionary leader” who works across party lines and with counties and tribes to better serve Minnesota.

“Tony’s expertise in human service is practically legendary, particularly around budgets,” Walz said at a news conference. “It is unparalleled in the state.”

Lourey chaired the Health and Human Services Finance committee from 2013-2016 when Democrats held the majority in the Senate. Before being elected in 2006, he worked as a consultant for 20 years with state and county governments nationwide to help them find ways to finance and improve the quality of their health and human services programs.

He’ll lead an agency that provides services to over 1 million Minnesotans, including health care coverage for low-income residents, economic assistance for struggling families, child protection, and services for the mentally ill, disabled and chemically dependent. It also runs the state’s sex offender treatment program.

Dayton called a special election for Feb. 5 to fill Lourey’s seat.

As an assistant commissioner at the DNR, Strommen oversaw both the Fish and Wildlife and the Parks and Trails divisions. She also served as mayor of Ramsey from 2012 until last May.

Walz said his decision to pick her over Landwehr was difficult because he considers him a personal friend. He said Landwehr “served with great distinction” but Strommen “simply struck to the heart of where we were going. She spoke with a passion that spoke to me.”

Strommen’s nomination could raise eyebrows among mining supporters because she worked in the early 2000s as policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a group that’s fighting the proposed PolyMet and Twin Metals copper-nickel mines. The DNR has already approved the key permits under its purview for PolyMet, while Twin Metals is in a much earlier stage of development. Dayton tried to stymie Twin Metals, but the federal government controls its minerals leases and is expected to oversee its eventual environmental reviews.

Strommen said she doesn’t have a position on Twin Metals yet. But she said the DNR would follow the state’s statutes, regulations and public engagement process in dealing with the project.

Malcolm will stay on in a transitional role at the Minnesota Department of Health and mentor a successor, Walz said. Dayton appointed her just last January to replace Ed Ehlinger, who resigned under fire amid complaints of widespread abuse of residents in senior care centers and lapses in oversight. Walz said the department is “making great strides” but needs stability for now because it still faces a backlog of complaints about elder abuse and nursing home issues.

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