As the 2015 Minnesota Legislature gaveled into session January 6, many disability advocacy groups were ready with proposed bills and action items. The 2015 session will center on the state budget. It will be a long session in a state capitol undergoing major renovations, so everyone needs to be prepared for some busy days and nights.
The session starts with a surplus projected of $1.037 billion for the two-year budget cycle. But there are cautions that the surplus is roughly the rate of inflation, so adding new programs or spending may be a challenge. It is also a session with a changed political landscape at the state capitol. The Republicans have taken control of the Minnesota House, meaning changes in committee and main body leadership. The disability community has also seen some key retirements among some of its longtime supporters, including Representatives Jim Abeler and Tom Huntley.
Sen. Tony Lourey (DFL – Kerrick) recently met with advocates at a Minnesota State Council on Disability legislative update session.
He noted that while the disability community has enjoyed success at the capitol in recent sessions, more needs to be done. He also said that although a surplus does offer a bit of breathing room, tough choices remain.
Lourey believes that because some of the state surplus is tied to reductions in health and human services spending, there does need to be a focus on money going back into those programs. But that may not be an easy sell to a majority of legislators.
A number of health and human services-related issues will be in play this session, including changes to programs that are related to the federal Affordable Care Act and access to Medicaid programs, parental fees, mental health programs, waiver programs, accessible housing, special education and transit and para-transit services. Advocacy groups have posted legislative agendas on their websites and Facebook pages. Many offer regular updates via email.
Some legislative issues, such as the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD)- led campaign to seek equity in Medical Assistance programs, have been at the forefront for several weeks. The 5% Campaign’s work for another five percent wage increase for caregivers has also been launched. (See related story on page 3.)
Other groups are working together on other issues. One example of this is The Arc Minnesota, Advocating Change Together (ACT) and Metropolitan Center for Independent Living’s quest for an appropriation from the workforce development fund. This money would be used for implementation of an employment training pilot program for people working in segregated settings.
Other important issues are also on the table. One, which was recently discussed by Lourey and then later last month at an Olmstead Sub-Cabinet meeting, is the need to adequately fund the state’s efforts to plan for and implement its Olmstead Plan. The plan will indicate how people with disabilities will be fully integrated into community life. Related to Olmstead, ACT is seeking funds to provide training for self-advocate leaders, helping work on issues to advance community integration under the Minnesota Olmstead Plan. Funds will be used for program coordination, consultants and program evaluation, program facilitators and guest speakers, meals and lodging, administration and action plans to support subgrants to regions across the state. The focus would be to facilitate Olmstead integration mandates.
Lourey’s belief is that there needs to be more awareness about the Olmstead Plan and the costs of implementation. “My worry is that legislators not think of Olmstead as the county Rochester is located in.” He said that implementing the plan will be “incredibly complex” with efforts across many state departments and that funding needs to be found to support programs in various state departments.
So how can community members make their case for legislation? Lourey noted that one way disability community members can succeed with their issues is to tell their stories, and to show lawmakers first-hand what issues are. Part of the success of the 5% Campaignwas that legislators visited people in their home settings, he said.
Another way is to subscribe to e-lists and action alerts on various disability advocacy group websites and to follow Facebook pages for groups of specific campaigns. Advocates are already gearing up for Tuesdays at the Capitol and regular Friday updates, organized by MNCCD. Learn more at www.mnccd.org