Legislative preview - New faces, new efforts mark start of 2013 legislative session

When the 2013 session of the Minnesota legislature began Jan. 8, hundreds of disability advocacy groups and self-advocates went to work. Some will be monitoring bills and painstakingly checking budgets line by line. Others will be testifying and lobbying for specific legislation.

Although there is optimism about a DFL-controlled House, Senate and governor’s office, there are also concerns. Some worry that the 2013 session will be one of continuing to fight against funding cuts, given the state’s $1.1 billion budget deficit.

In the lobbying ranks, familiar faces will be joined by newcomers. Rebecca Covington will be representing the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD) as its newly hired executive director.

One of the self-advocates who will be present is Kurt Rutzen, longtime activist with The Arc Minnesota, MN-CCD and other groups. His testimony in past years has helped stave off major cuts to Medical Assistance and other health programs.

“There have been many cuts in the disability community, seems like every year since I’ve been working down there, seems like more and more cuts come all the time,” Rutzen said.

Rutzen said he has sense a shift in attitudes at the capitol and a move away from an attitude of taking care of people. “Now sometimes I wonder about that. Taking care of disabilities is not a want, it’s a need,” Rutzen claimed.

“Whenever folks are thinking of cutting these services, I hope and pray that they try to make it personal and ask themselves questions like, if they took away my salary and benefits what would I do? And then make the decisions,” he said. Dozens of disability-related issues will be raised during the session and Access Press will provide coverage. Here is a look at a few upcoming efforts:

Advocates note that a challenge during any legislative session is in making themselves heard. One group working to promote its bill is Unite 2 Fight Paralysis, which wants legislation passed to fund spinal cord and traumatic brain injury research. Matthew Rodreick, outreach coordinator for the coalition, said supporters include the Reeve Foundation, Minnesota Spinal Cord Injury Association, The Spinal Cord Society, University of Minnesota, the Courage Center’s ABLE program and other groups. The Jack Jablonksi/Gabe Rodreick Spinal Cord Injury/Traumatic Brain Injury Funding bill is named for two young people who have sustained such injuries.

The group recently persuaded Minnesota Vikings kicker Chris Kluwe to spend a day in a wheelchair for a video. A screening/fundraising event is 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24th at the Brave New Workshop ETC in Minneapolis. The event will include short presentations by Sen. Jeff Hayden, spinal cord injury researcher Dr. Ann Parr and Rodreick. Kluwe may or may not be present, depending on the Vikings’ playoff status. Admission is $15, with hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar.

While they may not have a Viking in their ranks, advocates for autism will have growing presence at the state capitol. A number of groups have been working on developing recommendations on autism services recently, including the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) Health Services Advisory Council, the Minnesota Autism Spectrum Disorder Task Force, and a DHS-sponsored community stakeholder workgroup. Each group is expected to release a report soon.

One of 2013’s biggest issues is proposed reforms to coverage through the Minnesota Health Care Programs. No details have been announced, but it is expected to be part of Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget recommendations.

Fraser is one organization tracking the proposal. Fraser serves thousands of people with autism, including a licensed mental health program that provides multidisciplinary intervention services for children.

“Our first priority is to protect families from any unintended consequences,” said Diane Cross, president and CEO at Fraser.

“DHS has told us that their focus is on improving services, and not on restricting services. The challenge is that each family has such unique needs. We’ll be watching to make sure that families continue to have access to a mix of services.

It takes a lot of stakeholders, like counties, health plans, physicians, schools, and other service providers, to ensure that children receive the right level of care at the right time—especially for those children who have the most intense needs.”

Yet another area to watch is paratransit. At lot is at stake for paratransit and the disability community. By federal law, paratransit service is tied to regular transit service routes and hours. The advocacy group Transit for Livable Communities (TLC) has taken a lead role on transit and paratransit services.

TLC will work with partners including the Minnesota Public Transportation Association (MPTA) to advocate for additional funding for transit in greater Minnesota. Many bus and rail projects are eyed in the Twin Cities region. “But, if we don’t nail down the funding, our progress on making transit available could stop,” said Hilary Reeves of TLC. “At current funding levels, no projects are certain after the Cedar Avenue bus rapid transit and the Central Corridor light rail. Unless we figure out a larger funding picture, we are likely to be fighting cuts rather than building the system—in the metro and in greater Minnesota.”

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