Governor’s budget plan includes help for care workers, education changes 

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan began unveiling parts of their two-year budget in mid-January, focusing on the state’s […]

Tim Walz official photo

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan began unveiling parts of their two-year budget in mid-January, focusing on the state’s $17.6 billion budget surplus and the ways it could be used to better the lives of Minnesotans. 

One interesting idea Walz has raised is that creating a new Department of Children, Youth and Families. It would be separate from the state’s Department of Education. A new department could take over some programs that are now under the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). 

The notion of a split of DHS is nothing new but how a split and a new department could potentially affect younger Minnesotans with disabilities and their families isn’t clear. Legislators from both parties have criticized DHS over the years, saying it is too large and unwieldy. 

Of course many disabled Minnesotans and their family members have their eyes upon workforce issues. Walz has already indicated that he supports the SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa contract proposal  unveiled earlier in January. (See related story.) But the Walz proposal also targets workers with disabilities and their job needs, as well as the needs of caregivers. 

Funding the SEIU contract proposal is seen as a way of providing a historic wage increase, providing incentives for new and veteran workers, and creating an orientation program that provides a foundation of the supports available to those entering into and continuing in the home health care worker profession. 

Higher rates and other system changes in the budget will stabilize and expand the long-term care workforce, making it easier for people with disabilities to find and hire direct support workers to meet essential daily needs. The One Minnesota Budget increases rates for services, increases inflationary updates for waiver disability providers, and raises hourly limits for parents and spouses who are paid to provide community-first and consumer-directed community supports. 

Yet another proposal is for two permanent grant programs. These would address Minnesota’s long-term care workforce shortage by expanding the depth and diversity of the workforce while improving recruitment and retention. Ongoing funding would support provider capacity grants for rural and underserved communities, where the healthcare shortage has been extremely critical. Another new grant program would be focused on recruiting and retaining new Americans for vital long-term care positions. 
A $30 million investment is recommended in the next biennium for what is called the Drive for 5 Workforce Fund. It is focused on five of the most needed occupational categories in the state with high-growth jobs and family-sustaining wages. 

The five focus areas are technology, caring professions, education, manufacturing and trades. The Drive for 5 Workforce Fund is meant to produce a pipeline of workers who are skilled and prepared to enter high-growth and high-wage employment, in areas  and begin to address Minnesota’s high job vacancy rate. 

What’s unique about Drive for 5 Fund in the context of Minnesotans with disabilities is that it not only focuses on an area of need for home care and support, it also focused on disabled persons who wish to be in or advance in the workforce. It centers on populations that face the biggest barriers to employment: people of color, people with disabilities, and those facing other barriers. 

Often during the workforce shortage, there has been frustration that people with disabilities are overlooked as potential workers. Walz and Flanagan recommend creating a Minnesota Reasonable Accommodation Program, which will reimburse small- to mid-sized Minnesota employers for expenses tied to providing reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. The Reasonable Accommodation Program is promoted as a critical tool to help Minnesota employers create disability-inclusive workplaces. 

The budget includes a comprehensive package of investments and policy reforms to increase wages and create more inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities. Potential benefits also include addressing workforce shortages and increasing workforce participation by people with disabilities. These changes will align the state’s disability service system with Employment First laws, while renewing Minnesota’s commitment to competitive and integrated employment for people with disabilities. 

While the direct care workforce issues are foremost for people with disabilities, workforce issues are a problem statewide in many sectors. Strengthening the state economy and dealing with the workforce as a whole are other issues Walz is focusing on.

The centerpiece of the workforce and economic issues is paid family and medical leave, something that has been sought for many years by labor and some business groups. Other business groups question the costs and whether it could eventually be funded through payroll deduction programs. At $669 million it is the largest piece of the budget section aimed at economy and workforce needs. 

The paid family leave proposal was announced at Unity Café, a restaurant on St. Paul’s Rice Street just north of the capitol. Unity Cafe owner Cherno “CJ” Jome works two other jobs in addition to running his small café. He sustained a disabling back injury in an accident but doesn’t have options to take time off for treatment. Short-term disability would not be enough to cover his needs. 

Jome is a member of the Mainstreet Alliance, a progressive small-business owners group that has long called for the paid leave program. Members have argued in the past that small business owners and employees have struggled to work with injuries that in some cases have led to permanent disabilities. 

The current paid leave would offer up to 12 weeks of partially paid time off for family reasons such as a new child or a seriously or terminally ill family member. It would also provide up to 12 weeks of medical leave. Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove has indicated that the program could be covered through payroll taxes shared by employers and employees. 

Broadband expansion, something many Greater Minnesota people with disabilities consider crucial for education and employment, is also part of this proposed budget. Broadband expansion is eyed for a $276 million statewide expansion.  

Yet another focus is education, which was a theme during Walz’s campaign for governor and his inaugural speech. He has unveiled a $12 billion, four-year education budget. He is calling for more money for public schools as well as tax credits for families of young children. 

He announced his education and families budget at Adams Spanish Immersion Elementary School in St. Paul. Walz has proposed a refundable child tax credit of $1,000 per child younger than 18, and older students with special needs. This would be for families making less than $50,000 per year. The maximum credit would be $3,000. 

The governor also wishes to increase the state’s child care credit to allow families making less than $200,000 to receive up to $4,000 for one child, $8,000 for two children and up to $10,500 for three to help them with day care costs.  

Increasing the state’s general education fund, more money for school counselors and mental health needs, more funding for nurses and social workers, and free breakfasts and lunch for all students are also part of the Walz education budget. It’s all part of his administration’s focus to end child poverty. 

Marijuana could see changes 

Minnesota’s 243-plus page marijuana legalization bill has dropped and started its process through toward possible approval. People with disabilities who use marijuana for medical treatment are watching the bill closely. If passed it will bring changes as to how they are served. 

If passed, the bill requires that a new state agency be formed, with more than a dozen other state agencies involved in various related regulatory processes. Having everything go into place could take several months if not more than a year or so. 

Everything from setting up a new state agency to licensing producers and growing crops would have to happen. That would be followed by processing, testing and distribution. That timeline could be sped up if the state’s two current medical marijuana growers would be allowed to produce recreational crops as an interim step. 

The hemp-based edibles program approved by state lawmakers in 2022 would have to become part of an expanded legalization. One criticism of that program is that it was passed last year without a lot of regulatory legislation. 

What’s proposed is a new state agency, the Office of Cannabis Management. Its authority would expand to taking over the existing medical cannabis program from the Department of Health and hemp-based edibles regulation from the state Board of Pharmacy. 

Before medical cannabis was approved, some people with disabilities grew their own marijuana for personal use. Pending legislation would make this practice legal with limits on how much is produced and kept in their homes, with limits on how much could be shared. 

Pros and cons have been cited to ending the existing medical program and placing it in the new Office of Cannabis Management. The two companies, LeafLine and Green Goods, are currently under contract to produce marijuana and tinctures, vapes and flower containing THC and sell them to approved patients. Their contracts would expire July 1, 2024. LeafLine has already sent letters to state lawmakers questioning the constitutionality of a residency requirement for producers in the new legislation. 

Some people with disabilities have spoken out in favor of changes, with one argument being that legalizing marijuana will make products less costly. Another is the years of waiting for some disabilities to be added to the program. But others note that with a 21-year-old age limit for legal marijuana, children with seizure disorders are still left out of being able to use marijuana for treatment. 

Editor Jane McClure prepared the legislative coverage for this issue. 

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