A month in, bills pour in for hearings

More than one month into the 2019 legislative session, Minnesotans with disabilities and their advocates are already immersed in the committee review process. Several hundred bill have been introduced in the Minnesota House and Senate, including many disability-related measures. Those includes new policy and funding asks, as well as most proposals that were sidelined during 2018.

One big effort is again spearheaded by the Best Life Alliance, which has pushed for the introduction of House File 179 and Senate File 06 in support of disability services. The Alliance and its allies are seeking more funding for disability support service, and the reversal of a devasting seven percent funding cut.

Another group, the PCA Reform Coalition, is spotlighting the personal care assistance (PCA) program and the need for rate increases. The coalition is at the capitol pointing out that the program’s reimbursement rate has only increased by $1.16 per hour over the last decade. It is calling for increases to help end the high turnover rate in PCA staffing, which creates hardships and instability in the lives of people who rely on PCAs.

The coalition is pushing for a data-driven rate reimbursement framework, increased wages, an increased enhanced care rate for clients with the highest needs and consistent collection o service provider data statewide.

The House Long-Term Care Division has already heard from Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) leadership about the case crisis for Minnesota elders and people with disabilities. The state hit a 20-year high for direct care job openings in 2017. Kari Benson, DHS director of the DHS Aging and Adult Services Division, said those numbers are only expected to get worse.

The PCA Reform Coalition is spotlighting Bureau of Labor Statistics figures that show the hourly wage for PCAs in Minnesota is $11.83, and at $12.69 for home health aides. A presentation to the House division showed that nationally, about 45 percent of direct support professionals live in households below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Many rely on some form of public assistance to support their families.

But the direct care and supports funding crisis are just two of many focuses for Minnesota’s diverse disability community. Calls for more support of rural and children’s mental health and ways to address increased demand for special education have been among the many disability issues heard by committee over the past month.

House and Senate leaders have also highlighted the need to contain health care costs while providing needed services. Health care in all forms is expected to be a major topic, and a source of capitol debate.

Special education is in the spotlight, with an eye on everything from the amount of paperwork teachers face to funding. Funding is already under

review in the House, as the Finance Committee spent two meetings discussing increasing enrollment trends and the complexities of funding needed services. Department of Education statistics show increasing demand, with the number of students enrolled for special education services from 115,844 in 2003 to 147,605 this year. While that trend can be attributed to higher overall K-12 enrollment as well as improved screening and awareness, it has put a strain on a system already lagging behind financially.

One issue the House committee reviewed is the cross subsidy, which results from the difference in the amount of state and federal money a school district gets versus the actual costs of providing special education services. Such services are mandated and can cause hardship for school districts to provide. Other general education programs face cuts to keep up with special education services.

The cross subsidy affects all students and all districts, legislators were told. Minnesota Department of Education statistics show an average $830 cross subsidy per K-12 student. But this varies greatly by district. St. Paul Public Schools’ subsidy is about $1,400 per student, highest in the core cities. Recent changes to the funding formula and increased state funding haven’t helped.

Calls for more funding have also been made for rural and children’s mental health services over the past few weeks. Children’s mental health services and the growing need were discussed at committee, where educators and experts described the increasingly complex needs they see among schoolchildren.

In the House alone, there are three bills to support rural mental health services with increased funding. Rural mental health counseling receives $113,000 per year, but access to services as well as funding are big hurdles. Minnesota only has one state-supported rural mental health counselor.
He works with nine farm advocates who help farmers with mental health as well as financial and legal issues.

One House division heard from Kittson County Commissioner and farmer Theresia Gillie. Her husband Keith died by suicide in April 2017. Gillie told the committee she believes it is her responsibility to make sure others get needed support.

The push to get bills introduced and heard is compounded by the fact that as of Access Press deadline, committee deadlines for bills hadn’t been announced. While there’s no yearly deadline to introduce legislation, House and Senate leaders annual set dates for committee action on bills. The dates are set during the first half of the session. That helps winnow down the number of topics to be handled. But is also means disappointment for those whose pleas are set aside.

The first deadline is for committee to act favorably on bills in the body of origin. The second is for committees to act favorably on bills or bill companions that met the first deadline in the other body. The third deadline is for committees to act favorably on major appropriation and finance bills.

What can be confusing is that deadlines don’t apply to House committees on Capital Investment, Ways and Means, Taxes or Rules and Legislative Administration, nor to Senate committees on Capital Investment, Finance, Taxes or Rules and Administration. There’s also a committee referral process for action on bills after a deadline.

See live and archived hearings, check the status of bills and get more information at www.leg.state.mn.us. There is a tab for disability access for visitors