2013 session - Legislative session saw key gains, some disappointments

Nikki Villavicencio was among the many disability community activists who testified at the captiol this session. Photo courtesy of SEIU

For Minnesotans with disabilities, their family members and caregivers, the 2013 session of the Minnesota Legislature will be remembered as one with several key gains and some major disappointments. With that in mind the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD) is already among the groups preparing for the 2014 session.

Group leaders are preparing for a legislative wrap-up event in late June, and the kickoff of fall advocacy trainings and town hall forums around the state. MNCCD is asking that everyone check in with the MNCCD website, www.mnccd.org, for information about advocacy events and opportunities going on this summer and fall and how all can be involved in advocacy.

A number of investments in health care marked the 2013 session. MinnesotaCare was preserved and Medicaid expanded. Major steps were taken to implement the Affordable Care Act, including the creation of an insurance exchange that will be up and running in January 2014. Enrollment will start in October. More money was found for special education, with an additional $40 million being passed as part of the $15.7 billion education budget. A tax bill provides an additional $2 billion in revenues for state government.

Not everyone benefited from the state’s $38.3 billion budget. The final health and human services package had a $50 million cut to services, leaving $11.3 billion for the biennium. That was an improvement over the $150 million in cuts the House and Senate sprung before leaving for their spring break. But there were important gains, advocates pointed out. “The final health and human services bill that passed the Minnesota House and Senate contains many reforms and innovations that we applaud and strongly support,” said Steve Larson, public policy director for The Arc Minnesota. “These measures will allow persons with disabilities to live and thrive in their communities and are cost-effective.”

The changes and innovations include a reduction and, in some cases, elimination of fees that low- and middle-income families pay for services to keep their children with disabilities at home and provide them with needed medical care and therapies. More than 4,000 families whose children have significant disabilities will now more easily access services they need. Another big win is the elimination of a 1.67% cut in disability services funding. That cut was scheduled to take effect this July 1.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services’ Reform 2020 saw some of its initiatives move ahead. These measures could create dramatic changes in the way people with disabilities are served. “The goal of Reform 2020 is to put consumers in control so they can make the important decisions about their own services and lives,” Larson said. “Studies have shown that when consumers are in control of their own services, funding, and staffing, they are more satisfied.”

There was also praise for the final tax bill that passed right before the session ended and increased revenues by $2 billion. “These new resources, raised in a fair manner, helped prevent disability services from being cut again, which they have been so often in the past decade,” Larson said.

Funding continues to be an issue, said Jeff Nachbar, public policy director of Brain Injury of Minnesota. While nursing home got a long-overdue 5 percent increase and workers will see some of that in their first wage increase in several years, facilities for people with disabilities only saw a 1 percent increase in the final health and human services bill.

When that takes effect in 2014, the average worker will get an additional 12 cents per hour. That was a huge disappointment because caregivers and service providers haven’t had an increase in five years. Nor does it begin to make up for the past four years of cuts.

“After years of bearing much of the burden for balancing the state budget, and after sustaining hundreds of millions of dollars in funding cuts over the past decade, people with developmental disabilities and their families deserved better than a one percent increase,” said Larson. “Legislators certainly could have found more money for people with disabilities when they were bringing in $2 billion more in revenues.”

The reaction to the 1 percent increase crossed party lines, with House members from both parties saying that the increase should have matched nursing home increases. Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, responded by saying, “I’ve been here 25 years and this is the first time I’ve been accused of not spending enough money.”

Many disability advocacy groups were also disappointed that despite a last-minute push, stronger anti-bullying measures weren’t adopted. With a Republican filibuster threatened in the session’s final hours, the Senate didn’t act on the bill. It had already passed the House and had Gov. Mark Dayton’s support. It contained key recommendations a Dayton-appointed task force had made.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, authored the Senate’s version of the Safe Schools for All bill. He told supporters that the bill will be brought back in 2014, adding, “Every setback, every discouragement, in this movement I’ve only seen people grow stronger and more determined and more fierce.”

Minnesota’s current anti-bullying law is considered one of the weakest in the United States. It only requires school districts to have an anti-bullying policy. The Safe Schools for All legislation offered a more detailed definition of bullying and includes requirements on school employee training, school district tracking and investigation of bullying cases. It was followed closely by disability advocates because many children with disabilities are bullied. But many Republicans and some private school administrators said the bill was overreaching. The Minnesota School Boards Association claimed the bill would be another unfunded mandate. Some estimates were that Safe Schools for All would add another $5 million and $40 million annually in costs.

Another disappointment is the failure to approve new revenue for paratransit and transit. “Minnesota had a chance to make a decisive move on transportation but decided not to take it. Instead of moving sensibly to expand our transit system, we’re stalled. No increase in local bus, minimal progress on rail. This is a huge disappointment, especially to all the people who need more affordable options for getting to work and school, and for the health and economic vitality of our region. Minnesota is not a national leader today,” said Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities (TLC).

TLC is part of the Transit for a Stronger Economy coalition. The coalition wanted a 3/4-cent increase in the regional sales tax for transit. The measure had Dayton’s and the Senate’s support but couldn’t get through the House. That means a status quo bill did pass, with no new funding for local services and no dedicated allocation of the sales tax for safe, accessible bicycling and walking projects.

According to TLC, there is a small increase for transit in Greater Minnesota ($256,000 extra from the general fund plus $10.8 million leased vehicle sales tax). This meets only 60-65% of the need in greater Minnesota, rather than the statutory goal of meeting 80% by 2015.

Transit advocates and those wanting an increase in the minimum wage will be back in 2014. The House and Senate couldn’t agree on proposals to support a minimum wage increase so that was also shelved. The current state minimum wage is $6.15 per hour. Senate DFLers suggested an increase to $7.75, while House DFLers called for $9.50.

Groups seeking capital bonding dollars will also be back in 2014. While an $800 million bonding bill was killed by the House, House and Senate leadership did pull together a smaller $176.8 million bonding bill, which Dayton signed. It includes capitol repairs and a new parking ramp, and more than $18 million as a state match for an expansion at the Minneapolis Veterans Home. But it didn’t include $36.3 million to construct new facilities at the state security hospital in St. Peter to allow sex offenders to be housed separately from mentally ill and dangerous inmates. Nor did it include a $3.75 million request from Minnetonka-based St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development. The request for state funds to support its Building Our Children’s Future capital campaign to create an early education, early intervention, treatment and training center that will meet a growing need for high-quality services for children with a broad range of developmental needs.

St. David’s Center serves thousands of children every day in Minnetonka and throughout the Twin Cities. The renovation and expansion project, scheduled to be completed in 2014, will provide up to 100 construction jobs and 30 new direct service positions immediately as a result of increased capacity. The Center also is a training ground for dozens of graduate students and professionals who then practice in communities throughout the state.

“We are tremendously grateful to the Capital Investment Committee Chairs, Representative Alice Hausman (DFL- St. Paul) and Senator LeRoy Stumpf (DFL- Plummer), for seeing the importance of this project and its value to the state of Minnesota,” explained Julie Sjordal, executive director, St. David’s Center, “and for their leadership in seeing it through to the final global bonding bill.” The request will be renewed in 2014.