The pace is picking up at the state capitol. First committee deadlines for bills, redistricting, the release of the February forecast and continued debate on high-profile issues have kept disability community activists hopping. The first deadline for bills to have had an initial hearing is March 16.
But the whirl of activity was overshadowed by the death of Sen. Gary Kubly. The Granite Falls DFLer lost his battle amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. His funeral was March 7 in Granite Falls.
The 68-year-old retired Lutheran minister had hoped to finish his term but was hospitalized Feb. 29 and died March 2 at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. He had served in both the House and Senate.
“Gary was a dedicated public servant and an outstanding leader. He lived his life with quiet strength and principled dignity, as evidenced by the remarkable courage with which he faced his final illness. He is an inspiration to all of us, who knew and worked with him,” said Gov. Mark Dayton.
Here’s a look at a few other issues:
State surplus eyed
A positive February forecast and what it means for the state’s economic recovery was tempered by the reality that the dollars are already spoken for. The forecast showed $323 million to the good, which follows a November 2011 forecast that showed a surplus of $876 million.
Growing employment in Minnesota and savings in various state departments aided the surplus. But the money is already going to be needed to refill state budget reserves and start the plus-$2.4 billion task of paying back what was borrowed from schools to balance past budgets.
Both Courage Center and Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD) noted that the good forecast news is tempered by a forecast $1.1 billion budget deficit in the next biennium, as well as uncertainties about economic recovery.
The Arc Minnesota urged state legislators and the Governor to use the projected state budget surplus to reverse 2011 state budget cuts in direct care staff wages and services that help people with disabilities live in the community.
“The current budget surplus is an opportunity to repair some of the damage caused last year from cuts to supports for people with disabilities and their families,” said Steve Larson, The Arc Minnesota’s Senior Policy Director. “When the governor submits his supplemental budget, we urge him to restore the cut to wages paid to personal care staff who support their family members, and to reverse the cut in funding for services for thousands of Minnesotans with disabilities who live in the community. We also urge legislators to restore these funding cuts.”
In 2011, state officials agreed to a budget that included cuts to supports that help people with disabilities live in and participate in their communities. This included a 20% cut in the wages paid to direct care staff (officially called “personal care assistants,” or “PCAs”) and a 10 perent cut in funding to services provided in the community for about 2,600 Minnesotans with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and other disabling conditions. Restoring the cut in PCA wages would cost $24 million; restoring the 10% funding cut would cost $14 million.
MA-EPD reforms sought
In light of issues raised by St. Paul resident Charles Van Heuveln and others, Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, continues to push ahead on her bill to reform a state medical insurance program for working people with disabilities. Sheran has been working on the bill for four years but it has gained new momentum since Van Heuveln’s plight became known.
Van Heuveln has cerebral palsy. He works for St. Paul Public Schools and owns a condo, but would be forced to retire in May and go on state Medical Assistance when he turns 65. He would also have to give up many assets.
MA-EPD has an age limit of 16 to 65 years old. In MA-EPD, people can keep up to $20,000 in income earnings to help them stay in their homes, and receive services. But the bill that would make changes to help him and others faces questions about program costs and changes. One huge question is how the bill would affect state spending over the long term.
Guardianship issues raised
Individuals under guardianship could face changes to their voter eligibility status under a bill brought forward by Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake). Her bill would clarify voting rights with regard to those under guardianship. She said the goal is to ensure that individuals who are not competent to vote are denied eligibility, while competent individuals aren’t denied.
The impetus for the bill stems from a 2010 incident in Crow Wing County in which a group of developmentally disabled adults were alleged to have been manipulated into voting by their caregivers. One family member claims his son isn’t mentally competent to vote and shouldn’t have been allowed to do so.
According to Session Weekly, Kiffmeyer said the bill is needed to clarify current law and to protect vulnerable adults from those who would use them to commit voter fraud. Opponents argue it’s unfair to presume people under guardianship to be incompetent, and said the burden should be on the courts to determine when they’re ineligible.
“Persons with disabilities, even when within the court process and under court supervision, should be presumptively thought to possess the right to vote,” said Bob McLeod, an attorney who was involved in drafting the current state law on voting. Individuals under guardianship are presumed to be eligible to vote unless a court rules otherwise.
Kiffmeyer’s bill would reverse this by delineating between individuals under “limited guardianship,” who would be presumed to be eligible, and those under regular guardianship, who would be presumed to be ineligible. The bill is going through the House committee process and has a Senate companion.
Advocacy days continue
MN-CCD sponsors Tuesdays at the Capitol. Attend these sessions every Tuesday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and learn how to be an effective advocate for yourself or for a family member.
MN-CCD will help people share their stories about the importance of disability services with legislators and to ensure there is a disability community presence at the capitol. Contact [email protected] or at 651-523-0823, ext. 112. No session is held April 10 because state lawmakers will be on spring break.
Each Tuesday starts at 10 a.m. with a briefing on current disability policy issues and a review of tips for meeting with legislators, a document with general speaking points around disability services to share with legislators, specific issue information when appropriate, and the legislative hearing schedule for the day with highlights of particularly relevant hearings. Assistance will be available for locating legislative offices and or accompanying advocates to meetings with legislators. Help is also available if advocates haven’t prepared their personal stories in advance.
It is best to set up meetings with state lawmakers well in advance. Call 1-800-657-3550, or go to www.gis.leg.mn/OpenLayers/districts to find contact information. MN-CCD and other groups typically end their training at 10:30 a.m. so set p meetings after 10:45 a.m. Advocates should bring inform action, typically no more than one page, to tell their personal stories. Fact sheets from specific disability advocacy groups are also helpful.
There are options for lunch. Either bring food or purchase food in the accessible cafeteria of the Transportation Building (connected to capitol and State Office Building by accessible underground tunnel). Check for parking information at www.leg.state.mn.us/leg/capitolcmplx.asp Several Metro Transit buses stop near the capitol and State Office Building.
The largest of the advocacy events is the annual Disability Day at the Capitol, set for 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesday, April 4. Register in the capitol great hall starting at 10 a.m., then go to briefings at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. A rally will be held in the capitol rotunda at noon. This event is sponsored by several advocacy groups. Preregistration is due by Monday, March 26.
For a flyer on this event, go to tinyurl.com/86ede9c or call 1-800-669-6442 or [email protected] Advocating Change Together, Brain Injury Association of Minnesota, People First of Minnesota, Self-Advocates Minnesota and The Arc Minnesota are sponsors.
Another upcoming advocacy days is MCIL/DSPAM Day, Thursday, March 15, www.mcil-mn.org Join DSPAM, Metropolitan Center for Independent Living (MCIL), Minnesota State Council on Disability (MSCoD), Southeastern Minnesota Center for Independent Living Inc., Independent Lifestyles, Inc. to advocate for consumer-directed independent-living and meet with state lawmakers.