Dozens of measures important to Minnesotans with disabilities hang in the balance as state lawmakers approach the final weeks of the 2016 legislative session. Medical Assistance reform, the quest for a pay raise for caregivers and many other bills were still in the hunt as the April issue of Access Press went to press. Bills on special education, mental health, accessibility, state facilities improvements, children’s services, transportation and more topics will shake out during April. The short session has everyone hurrying to get measures through.
The second bill deadline ticked past April 8. By then committees had to act favorably on bills or companion bills, that had had met the initial April 1 deadline in the other house. By April 21, the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee must act favorably on major appropriation and finance bills.
Legislators must adjourn by May 23 or go into a special session.
Capitol construction again has limited the number of rallies this session, although several groups have held their “day on the hill” events and had strong turnouts. The Tuesdays at the Capitol events sponsored by various disability advocacy groups have also drawn good crowds. Hearing rooms have been packed with advocates making their case for legislation. As the hearing phase on bills ends, advocates will have to take their case to legislators on a one-on-one basis.
The Best Life Alliances, which is leading the charge for a five percent pay raise for caregivers, launched a statewide phone campaign April 6. Advocates targeted House members to urge that increase by five percent the wages of workers who care for elderly and disabled Minnesotans. Best Life Alliance Co-Chairperson Steve Larson of The Arc Minnesota said there are currently 8,700 job openings in Minnesota for care workers. “This is a crisis and requires immediate action by the Minnesota Legislature.”
The bill for the increase got through the House and Senate Health and Human Services Committees by March’s end. The advocates, led by ARRM and MOHR, also held a massive rally March 15 that drew more than 1,000 people to the state armory. Groups from across Minnesota flocked in, waving signs, and chanting “Support our staff” and “Five percent” as supportive legislators looked on. They cheered as state lawmakers pledged to do what they could to help Minnesotans with disabilities.
Mike Burke, board president of MOHR, said advocates need to tell legislators that a five percent increase passed two years ago has made a positive difference. “But it’s not enough,” he said. Burke and other campaign leaders
urged everyone who relies on staff to tell lawmakers that having consistent, well-compensated staff matters greatly and affects quality of life.
Legislative allies have told Best Life Alliance members that they want to make an increase a priority. “The people who need the most shouldn’t be the last in line,” said Rep. Matt Dean (R-Dellwood). He said the state needs to stop wasting health care funding and support people who need help.
As the group left to go meet with lawmakers that day, word came that Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget didn’t include the increase. That brought pressure to get something through the House and Senate. One group surrounded the governor for a chat on the capitol grounds right after the rally.
The bill, as presented in the committees, would increase state reimbursements by five percent for home and community-care providers and require 90 percent of the funds be dedicated to wages. Amendments made in the House committee by Rep. Diane Loeffler (DFL – Minneapolis) would provide a seven percent increase, with five percent dedicated to worker compensation. State officials would also be required to develop a plan, with cost estimates, of what would be required to increase direct care worker compensation to $15 per hour by July 2019.
Loeffler and other House members were unhappy to learn that much of the last five percent increase, passed two years ago, didn’t go directly to workers. Some went to agencies and some was earmarked for a study. Agency leaders told state lawmakers that while they understood the concerns about where money is allocated, and that wages should increase, some resources also need to go to management of staff.
Loeffler also said that in the near future, she wants to get wages up to $15 per hour, up from the $11 per hour average now. But urging a cost increase brings a larger fiscal note. The note attached to the original five percent bill had an estimated cost of $95 million for 2017 and $232 million for the 2018-2019 biennium. The increase awaits action in the omnibus financing bill in both the House and Senate.
Other legislation poised for inclusion in financing bills is the Medical Assistance reform campaign. This is the top issue in 2016 for the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD), as it was in 2015.
The MA bill, buoyed by testimony from several people who must struggle every month to pay for even basic needs, also made it through the House and Senate Health and Human Services Finance Committees. Speakers described not being able to afford even small things like a day of fishing, or having to work years beyond retirement age. The change would raise the spenddown limit from $792 a month in income to $990 a month. The legislation would also raise the asset limit from $3,000 to $10,000 for an individual with disabilities to qualify. (A chart explaining the legislative impacts is on this page.)
The bill would affect about 15,500 Minnesotans and has a fiscal impact on the state budget of $27.2 million for fiscal year 2017. But advocates argue that the reform would actually have financial benefits over the long term and would help people live and work in their home communities. Supporters said the advocates had made a strong showing and that they are hopeful that the issue will be addressed.
Other bills are meeting a mixed fate. One high-profile bill that has been set aside this session is the Compassionate Care Act, which drew hundreds of people to a hearing in March. Author Sen. Chris Eaton (DFL Brooklyn Center) pulled the bill after hours of emotional testimony on both sides. Eaton had hoped the measure would be a placeholder for 2017. She will try again next year.
Eaton said the bill would help people whose agony due to illness becomes unbearable. Many people with terminal illnesses attended the hearing to give their support. One was Dan Diaz, whose late wife Brittany Maynard, had to move from California to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s law when the pain from her brain tumor became too agonizing. Maynard’s death was a factor in California passing its own law.
But bill foes said the measure could all too easily be abused and used against people with disabilities, the elderly and others. One issue raised was that people could feel pressure to end their lives.
Eaton was disappointed as she had spent much of the past year meeting with groups around the state to discuss the proposed legislation.
Another high-profile issue that is still moving ahead would combat so-called nuisance lawsuits centered on disability. The Minnesota State Council on Disability has been working with business groups to pass legislation to help small businesses remove physical barrier and meet accessibility regulations.
As Access Press went to press, supporters were dealing with different versions of the bill in the House and Senate. The House bill had no related appropriation, which would be used to inform businesses of their accessibility obligations under the law. One challenge ahead is that of reconciling the bill language, as well as finding needed financial support.
The legislation is aimed at curbing abusive lawsuits, and encouraging businesses to provide full access to disabled customers. It passed its first committee hearing in March in the House. It has gotten through the House Civil Law Committee and is headed to a Senate hearing this month.
The bill was prepared after attorney Paul Hansmeier filed more than 100 lawsuits against Minnesota businesses and landlords, alleging violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. At least one other attorney is filing similar lawsuits. A few small businesses have had to close. Others have had to make expensive changes.
Many of the violations were considered technicalities. Often a lawsuit and demand for compensation was the first time the property owner learned of the alleged infraction. In Minnesota, a community would get hit with a number of lawsuits at once. This included Willmar and Rochester, as well as the Twin Cities.
A number of business and trade groups are supporting the legislation. It will also require changes at the federal level. Some Minnesota business owners have already testified before Congress about the issue.
Hansmeier is facing disbarment due to issues that aren’t related to the accessibility lawsuits.