Legislative session starts with a flurry

The 2014 Minnesota legislative session was a whirlwind of activity in its opening days, with dozens of hearings, bill introductions and rallies. Minnesotans with disabilities are in the thick of things on dozens of issues. Jam-packed rallies have been held. More disability advocacy groups and their issues will be in the spotlight in the weeks ahead. At a pre-legislative and legislative rallies and meetings, Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities leadership has urged everyone to be mindful of the fast pace state lawmakers are moving this session. Momentum this far seems to be in the community’s favor, but it will mean moving quickly as a myriad of bills and amendments move through the process.

Courtesy of ARRMThe rallies have been highlights of a short legislative session. Since the first gavel fell February 25, legislators have quickly starting shaping plans for the state’s estimated $1.2 billion surplus. They have rapidly passed emergency heating assistance, worked on a number of tax issues, held initial sessions on raising the minimum wage and the use of medical marijuana. Attention is also focused on the need to raise Medical Assistance income standards, with hearings getting underway in late February.

There is also attention being paid to the state change from Personal Care Attendant programs to Community First Services and Supports, and any possible law changes this session that would affect the program. The program, which was to start April 1, has been pushed back to October 31. Many are waiting for potential clarifying changes on the program.

While much work is going on behind the scenes, rallies have gotten much attention and prompted a focus on key issues. One of the largest rallies was March 4, when more than 1,000 advocates from across the state, including people with disabilities, their family members and caregivers, filled the capitol rotunda. They called for a five percent rate increase for home and community-based services that support people with disabilities and older adults in Minnesota. The bills seeking the increase are S.F. 1993 and H.F. 2408. Nine legislators lined up to speak, along with Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and self-advocates.

The 5 % Campaign is one of the most high-profile efforts this session. Supporters of the increase note that almost 100 percent of disability provider revenue comes from government sources. Due to repeated cuts and rising costs over the past decade, this revenue is insufficient for most providers to offer caregiver staff adequate wages. Care providers struggle with high staff turnover, which in turn has a negative impact on clients. If approved, a five percent rate increase would enable providers to offer more competitive wages, increase staff retention, and continue to ensure that people with disabilities and older adults receive a consistent, high quality standard of care.

The chief House author of the increase legislation called the economic forecast good news for the 92,500 Minnesotans receiving home and community-based services and 91,000 caregivers. Rep. Jerry Newton’s (DFL-Coon Rapids) bill was introduced with 77 coauthors. Chief Senate author Kent Eken (DFL- Twin Valley) was joined by 40 co-authors in nine identical bills. The co-authors include Republicans and DFLers. “A rate increase for Home and Community-Based Services is the major issue that wasn’t addressed in 2013,” Eken said. “The forecast tells us we have the resources to address this priority in 2014.”

Steve Larson, co-chair of The 5% Campaign advocating for the increase, said, “The 123 community organizations involved in the campaign are most gratified by the number of legislators who have signed on as co-authors. Now, with today’s forecast, we are energized and hopeful that the five percent increase will get signed into law.”

The increase would cost approximately $84 million for the remaining year of the biennium. Most of the five percent increase is directed to caregivers providing quality care for older adults and people with disabilities in community settings.

Hundreds gathered March 3 to call for passage of the Safe Schools Act, which would broaden legal language on bullying in schools. (See page 15.) Yet another large crowd descended March 6 for a mental health rally. The Mental Health Legislative Network, a coalition of more than 30 statewide organizations concerned about the quality and availability of mental health services in Minnesota, gathered to address key issues including funding and policy concerns that will affect the mental health community. (This article was compiled with information from The Arc Minnesota and NAMI Minnesota.)

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