Legislation affecting Minnesotans with disabilities

Disability community advocates, who have spent many hours at the state capitol tracking the House and Senate omnibus health and human services (HHS) bills, continue to follow a number of proposals as the session moves into its final weeks. A rapidly changing landscape during the 2012 session of the Minnesota Legislature means many proposals important to the community are still undecided.

Concerns about further cuts to disability services have prompted hundreds of people to attend recent disability rally days at the capitol. Some events have attracted record crowds. On April 4 more than 600 people were expected to attend the annual Disability Day at the Capitol. They planned to call on state legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton to restore budget cuts to services, protect these services from further cuts and preserve the dignity and civil rights of people with disabilities that are jeopardized by legislative proposals.

“People with disabilities are not only concerned about cuts to their services, but threats to their rights as well,” said Rick Cardenas, Co-Director of Advocating Change Together. “Proposals like Voter ID will create barriers to make it more difficult for 27,000 or more Minnesotans with disabilities to exercise their right to vote. We are delighted so many advocates from across the state planned to come to St. Paul and speak up for their rights.”

With committee deadlines in March, some bills won’t make it through this session, including a push to obtain more funding for spinal cord injury research. Others are still in play as individual measures or as part of omnibus bills. Few major bills had been signed as Access Press’s print edition went to press. And with much attention focused on bonding proposals and a Minnesota Vikings stadium, there are worries that many more issues could be sidelined.

Another question is the push, by some to adjourn early. State lawmakers are required to adjourn the regular session on or before the third Monday in May, although there was a push by some legislators to adjourn by April 6, Good Friday. That marked the start of the one-week spring break, which ends April 15.

The Voter ID bill that was proceeding rapidly as Access Press went to press was a proposed constitutional amendment requiring Minnesota voters to present photo identification at polling places. A House-Senate conference committee signed off ballot language April 2, sending the measure back to the full House and Senate for final approval. Passage is all but certain and because Dayton cannot block the measure, it is headed to the November ballot. If it is adopted it would take effect for 2013 elections, barring a legal challenge.

Disability advocates are concerned that a voter identification requirement could be another barrier to voting. Advocates of the amendment contend it would reduce voter fraud.

Health and human services funding is being closely monitored by the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD) and other groups. Dayton’s supplemental budget, which was released March 12, called for $43.9 million in increased spending as well as $44.2 million in increased revenues. He included many provisions related to disability services, including repealing the 20% relative PCA wage cut; expanding eligibility for MA-EPD to people over age 65; delaying for one year the de-licensing of corporate foster care beds and transitioning this measure into a statewide reduction instead of facility reduction and reducing the “low needs” cut from 10% to 5%.

The differences between Dayton’s proposals and the HHS omnibus bills will have to be hammered out before the session ends. Both bills were making their  way through the House and Senate processes as of early April. Much of the debate has centered on the cuts from past sessions and how those have affected people with disabilities. But funding continues to be a problem, making any attempts to add services back in a challenge.

Issues MN-CCD, community groups and advocates are tracking are in the area of foster care, dental services covered by Medical Assistance, expanding definitions of home and community-based settings, changes in rates for brain injury and CADI waivers; a request for DHS to develop a plan to license PCA services and an amendment for the Health Services Access Commission to examine various autism treatment coverage.

One push this session has been by parents of children with autism, who have seen measures they support amended into the omnibus bills. Several parents of children with severe autism are asking lawmakers to allow more choices in the type of foster care settings for their children, so that their children are in facilities where staff is properly trained in management of residents with autism. A House committee passed two bills last month. One authored by Rep. Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester) would instruct the human services commissioner to work with counties to create an autism-specific foster care license for providers with the training and skills to meet the special needs of children with autism. Rep. Kathy Lohmer (R-Lake Elmo) authored a bill ask the commissioner to develop a plan to create a residential campus for persons diagnosed with autism up to age 21. Both bills were approved by the House Health and Human Services Reform Committee and sent on for further action. Senate Majority Leader Sen. David Senjem (R-Rochester) sponsored both companion bills.

Many other bills are also in play. Willful neglect of vulnerable adults could result in heightened criminal charges. A bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Gottwalt (Republican -St. Cloud) and Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove), would create a new felony crime for intentional deprivation of a vulnerable adult, such as with food, clothing, shelter or health care, when the caregiver “is reasonably able to make the necessary provisions.” Currently the worst charges in these cases are gross misdemeanors. Gottwalt said the bill is a bipartisan collaboration of many interested parties, including the provider community, law enforcement and prosecutors.

Prone restrains use in schools has also been a focus this session. School staff with specific training may physically restrain out-of-control students with special needs. The House passed the bill March 28, which would extend the authorization to do so through the next school year. Sponsored by Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Minneapolis) and Sen. Pam Wolf (R-Spring Lake Park), it would also require that the Department of Education gather data on prone restraints, with the intent of eventually replacing the practice with a safe alternative. Davnie said that schools in the Twin Cities metropolitan area brought the issue to his attention because they feel some students may pose a danger if the restraint authorization is allowed to expire. He said that without prone restraints, some special students could instead be confined to their home. The Senate passed its bill 65-0. Following the 116-16 House vote, the bill now awaits action by Dayton.