Access changes set – Employment programs, housing are special session wins

Gains in employment and housing funding, as well as access to projects funded by the 2008 state Legacy Act, are among […]

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Nick WilkieGains in employment and housing funding, as well as access to projects funded by the 2008 state Legacy Act, are among highlights of a chaotic, cramped and historic legislative special session June 13. The 2015 Minnesota Legislature wrapped up business in the State Office Building due to capitol renovations.

House and Senate and staff members squeezed into hearing rooms usually used by committees. It was a long, hot and sometimes frustrating day as much of work to reach agreements before the session took place outside of public view.

State lawmakers had to work on about half of the state’s $42 billion biennial budget during the one-day session, due to three vetoes by Gov. Mark Dayton at regular session’s end in May. Education, agriculture-natural resources and economic development-energy were the bills still in play in May and June. The special session also meant passage of plans for Legacy amendment funding and a statewide public works bill with more than $3560 million in projects. But state officials were able to get business done and avert a partial state shutdown.

The days leading up to the special session were in some ways a rerun of the regular session. Dayton not only clashed with the Republican-led House, disputes with Senate DFL leadership and within Senate DFL ranks affected legislation. There was also disagreement as to when and where a special session would be held, with the governor saying legislators could meet in a tent on the capitol grounds.

“The sign of a true compromise is that no one is happy with it,” Dayton wrote. He argued that the driving force behind the deal was the desire to avoid a government shutdown, and layoffs of 9,500 state employees. Layoff notices went out earlier this summer and some state services prepared for the worst-case shutdown scenario.

While most eyes were on controversial environmental legislation June 13, many disability community advocates were focused on how education and jobs bills played out. Most details on those were wrapped up before the special session began.

“We have reached tentative agreements on the remaining bills, which must be enacted to conclude the 2015 legislative session,” said Dayton in a written statement. “I am pleased that these agreements finally include $5 million to help Minnesotans with disabilities find and maintain employment, and to help prevent Minnesotans with mental illness from becoming homeless.” The two initiatives, with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, weren’t funded during the regular session.

The jobs bill passed and signed into law had other provisions for Minnesotans with disabilities. It included $1 million per year for grants to groups like the VECTOR Transitions Program and Minnesota Employment Center to provide communication access supports for adults and youth who are deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing. It also included more than $509 million for the biennium for communication access supports for workers and youth.

Yet another win in the jobs bill created a central accommodations fund with $200,000 per year included. This was passed with the intention of creating a long-term source of support for current and future state employees who need accommodations.

The Commission on Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans will work with other state agencies to ensure that they know that they can use the central Accommodation Fund to hire more deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing state employees.

But there was less good news in the education bill that was passed and signed into law. The education bill was a key factor in how the regular session unraveled in May. The state’s near-$2 billion surplus had Dayton calling for more school spending, including $350 for universal pre-kindergarten programs statewide, as well as $41 million more for special education.

The bill that passed in June wound up with a $525 million increase in school spending, but with no additional money for special education as Dayton sought, no new money for more pre-K programs and a small amount for early learning. Most of the new money goes to per-pupil aid payments.

The education bill sign into law does including funding for technology needed for the state Academies for deaf, blind and deafblind students. But there was only partial success for pre-K at Metro Deaf School in St. Paul. The school has struggled with enrolling students in its pre-K program. While parents can choose the school, the school cannot receive state or school district funding to pay for services. Advocates have vowed to be back in 2016. It’s the only school in the region offering American Sign Language instruction at the preschool level.

Other changes were made when $540 million in Legacy Act funds were approved. The funds will go to the Clean Water Fund, Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, Outdoor Heritage Fund and Parks and Trails Fund. The funds were created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in 2008 to benefit the environment, arts, parks, trails and other state resources.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis) successfully inserted language into the Legacy Act funding laws calling for improved access for persons with disabilities. The language brings the Minnesota State Council on Disability into access discussions, stating that “Where appropriate, grant recipients of [outdoor heritage, clean water, parks and trails, and arts and cultural heritage] fund, in consultation with the Council on Disability and other appropriate governor-appointed disability councils, boards, committees, and commissions, should make progress toward providing greater access to programs, print publications, and digital media for people with disabilities related to the programs the recipient funds using appropriations made in this article.”

Disability community advocacy groups are already planning for the 2016 legislative session, which starts March 8. 2016 is the second year of the biennial budget cycle which began July 1. That means the session is to focus on review of budgets, action on any interim studies, consideration of emergency measures and work on actions left over from the previous year. Because agreement couldn’t be reached on many spending measures, look for many 2015 battles to continue next year.


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