by Jane McClure
The wheels are turning toward the start of Minnesota’s 2024 legislative session. The session starts at noon February 12, 2024. Disability advocacy groups are preparing legislative agendas.
Some wheels are turning on buses ferrying state lawmakers around Minnesota. Legislators and their staff members have been visiting sites where bonding assistance is sought.
Many requests would provide accessibility improvements, for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Those include state buildings, colleges and university facilities and state parks. An array of facilities that specifically serve people with disabilities also have requests in.
Even-numbered years are sometimes referred to as “bonding” years. Odd-numbered years are “budget” years. The 2023 Minnesota Legislature passed a two-year budget in a historic session that included tax cuts and sweeping measures on many fronts.
State lawmakers also passed a bonding bill last spring, taking advantage of the state surplus. The $2.58 billion package of infrastructure projects ended a three-year span without such brick and mortar spending.
How bonding and 2024 as a whole will play out hinges in large part of how much money the state has. A mid-October report from Minnesota Management and Budget indicated that the state’s previous two-year budget cycle ended with a balance that is about $820 million higher than previous estimates.
Add that to a state surplus which was estimated at $1.58 billion in May, and the surplus increases to around $2.4 billion.
A new economic forecast is expected in February and that will give a better picture of what can be spent on state needs. In February 2023 the state surplus was a record $17.5 billion. That was used for a wide range of one-time projects and programs, new programs, tax cuts and other measures.
Preliminary 2024 bonding requests were due at Management and Budget in May, with a list of requests developed over the summer. Requests statewide total almost $7.4 billion. Of those, $4.4 billion is requested from state agencies. Local units of government have requested $3 billion.
State officials must develop additional project information and refine cost estimates before submitting the Governor’s Strategic Capital Budget to state lawmakers on or before January 16, 2024.
Access needs are scattered throughout the bonding requests. Some are disability specific. Others include access improvements as part of facility renovation or construction projects.
The hundreds of requests statewide put a spotlight on how infrastructure is aging and in many cases, is still not accessible. One example is at the University of Minnesota-Morris, where there is a $4 million ask for upgrades to the Multi-Ethnic Resource Center. The center, constructed in 1899, is the only campus building original to the Native American boarding school there more than a century ago.
Since 1972, the Morris building has been home to the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Intercultural Programs, which includes the Multi-Ethnic Student Program, LGBTQIA2S+ Programs and the International Student Programs office. The building lacks an elevator and other basic accessibility infrastructure, as well as modern life safety and building systems. In the year 2000, a ramp was added to an entrance at the basement level of the building. But the other two floors of the building remain inaccessible to disabled visitors. Nor are restrooms in the building accessible.
Other requests may be more familiar. An $8.5 million request is for ADA-focused upgrades to the tunnel at the state capitol, from the Department of Administration. The tunnel has steep spots and can be tricky to navigate. The project would create a new 15-foot-wide by 85-foot-long adjacent section at the east end of the tunnel connecting the capitol and state buildings. The improvement will meet the slope requirements of 12 units of horizontal run for every 1 unit of vertical rise (8.3 percent), as required by the ADA.
Work will also include the installation of an elevator that will convey wheelchairs and pedestrians with disabilities between the new ADA tunnel and the basement levels of the Capitol Building. The current tunnel will remain in place to serve those who can use it and to maintain the current usage volume capacity of the tunnel section.
The Department of Administration seeks an additional $2 million per year in 2024, 2026 and 2028 for the ADA building accommodation fund.
The Minnesota State Academies for the Deaf (MSAD) and Blind (MSAB) in Faribault have several requests, including $100,000 to update a 10-year facilities plan. The current plan for the campuses dates from 2012.
The largest academies’ request is $2.5 million to redesign and renovate the MSAB Library building that was recently vacated by the Minnesota Department of Education. The space was leased for use as the Minnesota Talking Book and Braille Library, until those programs moved to Minneapolis this fall. The space needs improvements before it can be used by MSAB students.
Another $2.5 million in asset preservation dollars is sought by both state academies. That money would be used compliance with ADA, safety/security concerns, and a variety of accessibility needs on both campuses. The campuses have a backlog of requests because asset preservation dollars haven’t been granted in recent years.
Other asks include $300,000 for predesign of the MSAB therapy pool/therapeutic hot tub facility; and $300,000 to complete predesign for a new MSAD student center.
The largest batch of disability facility requests is from the Department of Human Service, which seeks $147 million in 2024, and $50 million apiece in 2026 and 2028.
Those funds target asset preservation around the state as well as improvements at various state facilities that serve people with disabilities.
Another familiar requests is the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) ask of $25 million per year in 2024, 2026 and 2028 to make access improvements to state parks. The DNR works with the Minnesota Council on Disabilities on such requests.
Minnesota Housing Finance Agency is back with $300 million requests in 2024, 2026 and 2028 for housing infrastructure. Part of that housing package is for permanent supportive housing. This is affordable rental housing with connections to services necessary to enable tenants to live in the community and improve their lives. This type of housing serves people with an array of disabilities.
Read all of the state bonding requests at MN Management and Budget