The 2016 Minnesota Legislature is likely to head back to the capitol this summer. Although the regular session ended May 23, Gov. Mark Dayton’s pocket veto of the tax bill mean state lawmakers will need to come back for a special session. But whether the House, Senate and governor can agree on the terms of a special session wasn’t clear as Access Press went to press.
Dayton declined to sign the tax bill prior to a June 6 deadline. An error in the bill would cost the state treasury $101 million over the next three years. Dayton said he supported many provisions in the bill, which provides $260 million in various tax cuts as well as a tax exemption for a planned Major League Soccer stadium in St. Paul. But the governor found the error, which affects revenue for the new Vikings stadium, unacceptable.
House Republicans charged Dayton with using the tax bill veto as leverage for a special session, and force issues including a bonding bill and transportation. Bonding and transportation bills failed to pass before the regular session ended and were two of the most contentious issues this spring. Dayton countered that he wasn’t going to sign a tax bill with such a huge and costly error, and that the error couldn’t be changed administratively.
The sidelined major bills are important to Minnesotans with disabilities. The bonding bill included funding for improvements to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. Advocates for the state academies for the blind and deaf in Faribault had also hoped for help with capital improvement projects at the two campuses. The lack of a transportation bill not only affects transit and roads, it also affects the paratransit services Minnesotans with disabilities rely on.
The regular session, which began March 8, held promise because of a $900 million state surplus. But things quickly devolved into partisan bickering and very little got done. The passage of
major bills waited until the final days and hours of the session.
The possibility of a special session is being followed closely by the many disability advocacy groups and self-advocates around Minnesota. Although state leaders will dictate what will and won’t be dealt with when lawmakers return, some groups are holding out hope that issues left unfinished during the regular session could be brought back.
But for the most part, the sentiment is “wait until next year.” Supporters of a caregiver wage increase, Medical Assistance (MA) reform, spousal anti-impoverishment changes and a slew of other issues reviewed the session at a June 2 meeting of the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD).
“We didn’t get everything that we hoped for,” said Susie Schatz, co-chair of the MN-CCD public policy committee. “But there were some strides made.” Schatz and others said people need to stay involved. “MN-CCD’s legislative agenda is only as good as those who show up,” she said.
Other advocates said 2016 should be looked at as a session where people with disabilities raised awareness about the challenges they face and the issues that need attention. That is seen as laying groundwork for the 2017 session. But with an election this fall and many legislators retiring, the education process will have to start over in some legislative districts. MNCCD members have also done much soul-searching, asking themselves how they can make meaningful changes for Minnesotans with disabilities after year after year of disappointment.
Having a short session this year was an obstacle to work on disability issues, said Dan Endreson, policy committee co-chair. 2016 is the second year of the biennium so the focus was on bonding and a supplemental budget bill. “The timeline we had to work in really complicated things.
MN-CCD’s main focus was on the MA spenddown issue, to help people with disabilities have more income to spend on basic needs such as food and shelter. The current limits are criticized as forcing people into poverty. A change approved in 2015 will allow people to keep more of their income effective July 1. But people with disabilities face more restrictions than do others receiving state assistance.
The Best Life Alliance’s high-profile effort to gain a five percent compensation increase for caregivers also fell short, for the second straight year. Supporters said they are already at work seeing how to make changes and bring forward the compensation issue in 2017. The caregiver shortage situation is at a crisis point, with almost 9,000 caregiver jobs open in Minnesota.
What frustrated many proponents of the wage increase is that 116 state lawmakers signed on to the ill raising wages. The measure got through the House but failed to get through the Senate.
Other gains and losses
A number of other issues were sidelined, ranging from making the state website and materials more easily accessible and searchable to controversial legislation that would have given people more control over end-of-life options. A move toward self-driving cars stalled, although proponents were pleased that they did receive a positive reception.
Other efforts found success. Mental health initiatives, including those dealing with bed shortages and crisis care, were cheered. About $48 million in mental health spending won approval. Increased staff at the state’s 16-bed behavioral health hospitals and assistance to other programs was celebrated.
But Dayton and advocates’ quest for $90 million for the St. Peter state hospital fell short. The funds are needed not only for facility improvements but for more than 300 additional staff members. Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper called the lack of new funding for the hospital “extremely disappointing” in a statement after the session ended.
One gain for family caregivers is a measure to allow small temporary health care dwellings for families caring for a family member who is elderly or disabled. The new law regulates zoning and requirements for temporary dwellings and sets up a permitting system. The small dwellings would be no more than 300 square feet in size and would be under the guidance of a caregiver over the age of 18 who is a relative, legal guardian or health care agent. The structures would have to meet the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as local property code regulations.
Another success is the extension of benefits for certain individuals with disabilities who have recently graduated and wish to seek employment A 2012 law allowed the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) to amend the home and community-based services waiver to calculate benefits differently.
Individuals with disabilities who are at least 21 years old and graduated from high school between 2013 and 2015 received a 20 percent increase in their funding. However, the exception is limited to individuals who would be forced to move onto other waiver services if they want to work because the current calculation of benefits is insufficient. The rule is set to sunset on June 30, 2017. The new changes will extend the benefits to whenever the federal government approves a similar, broader exception included in last year’s health and human services law. It is unknown
when the federal government will approve the change, so the measure must be tracked closely.
Yet another gain is that the departments of human services, education, employment and economic development and information technology are required to collaborate and develop an action plan to increase community integration of people with disabilities. The recommendations would be presented to the legislature by January 1, 2017. The plan would be part of the state’s ongoing work on its Olmstead Plan. The plan is continuing to undergo community review. The latest set of plan revisions were reviewed at a community meeting in May and sent to the courts to meet a June 1 deadline.
A small win for residential group homes in border towns is that staff who don’t live in Minnesota will be able to legally drive residents with their home state’s driver’s licenses. State law has required the workers to get Minnesota licenses
Access lawsuits affected
One issues that brought accessibility advocates and business groups together during the legislative session is that of lawsuits based on the ADA. A handful of people have filed hundreds of lawsuits around the state, alleging accessibility and handicapped parking rule violations. The lawsuits have been very costly for small businesses, with some business owners claiming that they would be forced to close.
Business groups, chambers of commerce and the Minnesota State Council on Disability have worked together to find lower-cost ways to promote access, outside of litigation. A bill signed into law by Dayton made amendments to the state’s human right act, to counter the slew of legal claims.
People suing for accessibility under the state human rights act will have to describe each specific violation in detail, rather than making the blanket complaints seen recently. Nor can the plaintiffs demand money as the complaints are filed. Instead, businesses and other places that are the focus of complaints have 30 days to respond.
During hearings this sessions state lawmakers were told that the accessibility lawsuits are a trend nationwide. Some people file the lawsuits as individuals. Others form nonprofit groups and file on behalf of the groups. Proponents contend they need to file the legal claims because 26 years after the ADA was signed into law, many places still lack access. But opponents said the lawsuits are less about providing access than they are about getting money from businesses.