Lawmakers ran out the clock, headed for a special session?

Lawmakers ran out the clock, headed for a special session?

Minnesota’s 2022 legislative session wound down May 23 without action on many major bills, much to the consternation of disability community advocates. Agreements on a host of measures including health and human services, education and bonding wasn’t reached when the clock struck midnight May 22. 

An array of mental health issues won approval just before the deadline. But other proposals were left undone including special education, school mental health programs and an array of human services measures. Nursing home and personal care attendant programs were among many left hanging. So was a historic taxes package, which hinged on passage of other measures. 

While dozens of retiring House and Senate members made their farewell speeches May 23, the prospects of a special session were discussed behind the scenes. Gov. Tim Walz, who had previously resisted that idea, said he was open to a short, focused session as were House members. The Republican-controlled Senate was still balking at the idea. 

If s special session is called, state lawmakers would reconvene in June. Then decisions on the remaining $7 to $8 billion of the state surplus could be made. 

The final days of the regular session saw limited progress and much frustration as some hearings ended at impasses. One hearing ended with Department of Human Services and Minnesota Department of Health staff leaving before adjournment, which caused controversy. 

The state surplus prompted weeks of considering ways to improve programs and services, and increase spending. But because 2022 is a bonding year and not a budget year, state lawmakers didn’t have to act on spending matters. State operations can continue uninterrupted until July 1, 2023. 

On May 20, an agreement on a $4 billion taxes package was announced. All Minnesotans would see an income tax cut. Families with children and renters would also see tax relief But the biggest takeaway was that taxes on social security income would be eliminated, something that has been discussed for many years. 

Direct rebate checks weren’t part of the picture, which was a proposal Walz had championed. But the bill was tied to passage of an additional $4 billion in spending on health and human services, education and public safety. At an update, House Speaker Melissa Hortman said everything had to pass as well as the tax bill. “we do have enough time but everybody has to get realistic,” said Hortman. 

Without a compromise on other spending, the tax bill was also sidelined. 

Mental health had wins 

It was down to the wire for many mental health and criminal justice measures, which were pulled out of the larger health and human services legislation and added to the competency restoration bill. The House approved the bill 68-60 just before midnight, with the Senate acting earlier that evening. 

Law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and public defenders lined up with mental health advocates to pass the bill, which was an issue NAMI Minnesota highlighted in a pre-end of session news conference. 

The bill allocates more $30 million to treat and supervise people with mental illness who are charged with crimes and deemed unable to stand trial. The bill had widespread support and was spurred on by a recent KARE-11 investigation of failures to treat and protect people in such situations. the investigation found that there are several thousand such cases of people charged with crimes, found incompetent to stand trial and then released without court-ordered treatment. 

Competency restoration has been in the works for the past few years, led by a community task force. Competency restoration is the process used when someone criminally charged is found by a court to incompetent to stand trial. This usually happens in cases where someone has an intellectual disability or a mental illness. A criminal defendant must be restored to competency before the legal process can continued. Advocates have sought funding for a new State Board of Competency Restoration and related measures. 

NAMI Minnesota is analyzing he full impacts of what passed but did release several details. Items that passed include funding for crisis stabilization beds for children and youth, a $2 million increase for school-linked mental health and youth shelter-linked mental health and increased funding for the loan forgiveness program by $1.6 million. There is also $1 million for an African American mental health center. 

Another big win is $10.2 million for Adult Mental Health Initiative grants to ensure that under the new formula no one receives less than what they are currently receiving. Mobile crisis service, person-centered discharge planning for adults and children, and a program to provide supervision needed to become a mental health professional for free are cited as are a pilot project for mental health urgency rooms for children and mental health care for health care professionals. 

Other gains noted 

Other bills were signed into law earlier in May, including the “hero pay” measure. It provides direct payments to frontline workers and also replenishes the unemployment trust fund. “These are the people who made tremendous sacrifices to keep us safe throughout the pandemic – and this is the least we can do to recognize them,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. “Hearing stories of how this money can make the difference between a small business staying open or shutting down or a frontline worker staying at their job really proved how much of a difference this legislation can make for our state.” 

It includes $500 million for direct payments to frontline workers and $2.7 billion to replenish the unemployment trust fund and prevent tax increases on small businesses that bore the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first quarter of 2022, 130,000 businesses will receive UI tax relief with the passing of this bill. Roughly $200 million is the total amount of relief provided in this bill. 

An estimated 667,000 frontline workers will be eligible for a payment in recognition of their contribution to Minnesotans throughout the past two years. Frontline workers include those who work in long-term care and home care, health care, emergency response, public health, social service, regulatory service, courts and corrections, child care, food service, retail, temporary shelters and hotels, building services, public transit, ground and air transportation services, manufacturing, and vocational rehabilitation. Individuals must apply through Minnesota’s Department of Labor and Industry over the 45 day application period to quality for a payment. Details of the program, including the application process, will be available on www.frontlinepay.mn.gov 

Another measure signed into law provides consumer protections with structured settlements. Many people who have sustained disabled injuries have sold their rights to future payments to private companies in exchange for a payout. Some companies have been called out for unethical practices. the new law adds consumer protections. 

Walz also signed a law that adds physician assistants to many statutes that provide licensed health care providers with the rights, duties, protections and authority to perform certain acts. he also signed legislation that ensures that Minnesota’s share of a multi-state settlement will be used in areas including education, treatment, prevention, and recovery strategies. In February 2022, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced a multi-state $26 billion agreement with major opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, and the three major pharmaceutical distributors: Cardinal, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen. Minnesota’s share of this agreement is $300 million over the next 18 years. 

So what’s next? 

Members of the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD) gathered May 24 and 25 to discuss the session and next steps. Several expressed unhappiness at how the session ended, and wondered if having such a big surplus kept state lawmakers from getting anything done. 

Another concern raised is whether Minnesota is now dealing with the same kind of partisan politics and animosity seen at the federal level, given the level of animosity that flared at some late session hearings. 

A message from disability community advocates to legislators is this: Go back and finish your work. Until there is a special session, advocates will be reviewing the bills that did pass to see what will be signed into law 

A big disappointment was how little happened with the bonding bill, after the governor’s proposal came out early in the session. That left an array of accessibility requests and requests for improvements at state hospitals and the state academies in limbo. A proposal on inclusive playgrounds also was sidelined. 

“Bonding didn’t even get out of the gate,” said Melissa Haley, MNCCD policy cochair. 

While a 400-page health and human service policy bill passed, no companion funding bill was passed to go along with it. One bright spot in the policy bill is that the Rare Disease Council moves to the purview of the Minnesota Council on Disability. That is expected to improve how the disease-focused council operates. 

For MNCCD, the frustration is that so many of its initiatives were left unfinished, despite considerable pre-session groundwork and planning. Needed revisions to the PCA program are a sore point. Changes to the PCA rate framework, changes to the hours cap for family members providing care and changes to staff driving regulations didn’t get through the legislative process. Nor did changes to Medicaid and changes to help improve how disability services are accessed. 

The lack of action on education is another cause for unhappiness, given the amount of work on issues including the need to fully fund special education, and a proposal to change how schools use taking away recess as a punishment for students. Mental health needs in the schools were another unresolved issue. 

Another disappointment is that the changes weren’t made to Medical Assistance for Employed People with Disabilities (MAEPD) and asset limits for people on Medical Assistance. 

“This was a hard year,” said Haley. “It’s hard to not see things being done … But we will persist.”