2015 session nears mid-point with calls for state spending

2015 Legislative SessionAs the 2015 Minnesota Legislature approaches the session’s mid-point, Minnesota’s disability advocates and organizations are saying, “Show us the money.” Not only did the state’s February forecast show an increase in Minnesota’s budget surplus, there is also growing outcry over unspent millions of dollars set aside to serve people with disabilities.

The two issues are likely to dominate talk at the capitol throughout the rest of the session. As Minnesota’s state surplus has grown to $1.869 billion, so too have expectations about how it should be spent. The forecast released February 27 sparked disagreement between Gov. Mark Dayton, the DFL-led Senate and House Republicans.

Dayton has plans for much of the increased surplus, including $442 million for higher education, and universal kindergarten. Dayton has described his plans as an investment “in our collective better future.” He targeted part of the original surplus for education, transportation and mental health services. But Republicans are calling for tax relief and argue that the surplus doesn’t need to be spent.

The governor was to release his supplemental budget the week of March 9.

The 5% Campaign, which is leading the charge for a rate increase for home and community-based services, called on Dayton to include the increase in his supplemental budget. Advocates said the increase of five percent would make up for years of stagnant or slashed funding. Over the past ten years rate increases have lagged far behind the cost of living. “That means that caregivers are still woefully underpaid,” campaign spokesperson Bruce Nelson said. “The vast majority of the money in our request would go to increase wages and benefits for 90,000 professional caregivers.”

Two bills asking for a five percent rate increase in each of the next two years were introduced by Sen. Kent Eken (DFL-Twin Valley) and Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake).

“Minnesota is a state that makes sure everyone has a good quality of life,” Eken said. “But we must address a statewide need to adequately fund these essential services. They ensure health and safety and allow people with disabilities and older adults to remain independent in their communities. With the budget surplus, there is no better time than now.” “

Consistent care for older adults and people with disabilities is the greatest contributor to a high quality of life,” Hamilton said. “Increasing wages and benefits for the struggling caregivers who work hard to support Minnesota’s most vulnerable citizens will reduce staff turnover and ensure quality services. Providing a five percent increase to Home and Community-Based Services this session is simply the right thing to do.”

As of yet that plea hasn’t been answered. Nor has there been attention on other issues disability advocacy groups are raising, including changes to Medical Assistance programs.

But there is growing pressure for state lawmakers to address the problems created by counties failing to spend millions of dollars set aside for disability services.

Because the money sits unspent, thousands of Minnesotans don’t get basic services. Because almost $200 million in state and federal money allocated for people with disabilities went unspent by some counties, many people remain lengthy waiting lists. In a recent letter to Department of Human Services (DHS) Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, attorney Shamus O’Meara accused DHS of mismanaging at least $1.1 billion over the past 15 years. O’Meara has indicated that could lead to a class-action lawsuit against the state. He contends that if the state provides better management, many people who have spent years waiting for services would have been helped. It’s estimated that there are about 5,000 Minnesotans were on waiting lists for the disability waivers through MA, which is Minnesota’s version of the Medicaid program.

Legislation is pending that would force counties to spend available resources including Medicaid benefits or waivers. The benefits provide the largest source of funds for Minnesotans with disabilities. Legislators including Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlain, vowed to introduce the bill and help it along. Minnesota Disability Law Center and The Arc Minnesota are working on the bills.

One argument for making changes is that the state’s Olmstead Plan, which is meant to integrate people with disabilities into the community, does call for reducing the wait for disability waiver services.

The state allocated more than $1 billion per year for Medicaid waiver services, to cover costs including personal care attendant services, work opportunity and day treatment. In a media interviews DHS officials have said they are working to eliminate the disparities seen between counties in how funds are used. But they also claim the problem is exaggerated and that critics don’t understand the complexities involved in some cases. Typically the state does allocate more of the money than it has to, to provide flexibility. Another challenge counties face is that each client’s needs change as time passes. Yet another complication is that counties that overspend must reimburse the state. That caveat make counties more cautious and critics said, more conservative.

The bill on waiver spending and all other bills face key deadlines. By March 20, committees must act favorably on bills in the house of origin and March 27, committees must act favorably on bills or companion bills that met the first deadline in the other house. The deadline on major appropriation and finance bills is April 24. Legislators must complete the session by May 18.

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