Many questions are remaining as lawmakers eyeing session's end

Many questions are remaining as lawmakers eyeing session's end

Many questions, tempered with very cautious optimism, swirl around the state capitol as the 2022 Minnesota Legislature enters its final days in May. Many disability community initiatives are still in the chase, in stand-alone bills or as part of larger omnibus packages. Worries remains about how deeply divided state lawmakers are, and when or if Minnesotans will see agreements on taxes, policies and bonding. 

Two proposals still in play are brought forward by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and highlighted by the Minnesota Council on Disability (COD). Trevor Turner, who leads legislative efforts for the council, included details in a recent council update. 

One proposal is a study of disability as a health equity issue. The proposal includes increased data collection on health disparities and people with disabilities. “Improved data collection on health outcomes for people with disabilities is crucial to providing equity. When we have data that does not accurately reflect the population, it is much more difficult to provide the assistance people need. Also, maintaining a single database of disability statistics, available to both the government and the public, can only improve the advocacy efforts of nonprofits and state agencies alike,” Turner said. 

Another proposal is to have a state program to study so-called “long COVID, its population, the long-term medical outcomes and what programs or services people may need.” Longer-term cases of COVID-19 are considered by federal officials to be a disability. 

“Considering the numbers involved, the COVID pandemic could be considered a mass-disabling event,” Turner said. More information on the experiences of this group, and how they can be supported are issues for COD. 

A session bright spot was when Gov. Tim Walz joined Sen. David Tomassoni (I-Chisholm) and family, a bipartisan group of legislators, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research advocates to sign into law $25 million for ALS research and caregiver support programs. 

The measure invests $20 million to award grants to conduct research into the prevention, treatment, causes, and cures of ALS. The bill also invests $5 million for caregiver support programs for families of people with ALS, including services, information, education and training to caregivers and volunteers caring for, managing and coping with care. 

Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that results in progressive loss of motor control of voluntary muscles affecting approximately 30,000 Americans, with about 5,000 new cases diagnosed every year. At any one time, there are an average of 450 Minnesotans living with ALS. The disease is 100 percent fatal and there is no known cure. 

“Today our state is making real progress in the fight against ALS,” said Walz. “By investing in ALS research and caregiver support, we are moving together toward finding a cure for this disease and better caring for Minnesotans living with ALS and their families.” 

The ALS legislation is one of a handful of bills signed into law as May began. Other progress was made in combatting avian flu. But measures including tax cuts and rebates, public safety, front-line work compensation and unemployment insurance taxes remained as key sticking points. 

Even-numbered years are typically when lawmakers focus on bonding and policy measures. One big question mark is what will happen with the state’s historic $9.25 billion budget surplus. Another question is how another $1.2 billion in pandemic relief should be spent. 

For Minnesota with disabilities, the extra dollars have been eyed as possible resources to shore up a collapsing personal care and staffing system, to add housing options and to address a wide array of program and policy needs. But 2022 is not a budget year, so state lawmakers aren’t constitutionally required to pass any budget-related measures this session. 

If funds go unspent, the state surplus rolls over into 2023. Walz could decide how to allocate the federal dollars. 

Because 2022 is a bonding year, there are projects in the hopper including state academy and state hospital needs, accessible playgrounds and access upgrades to state buildings and state parks. But Minnesota has had legislative sessions where agreement couldn’t be reached on capital spending, and nothing was funded. 

The potential of lengthy conference committees and floor sessions is on many minds. One lobbyist described the potential for no action this session as a “long slow train to nowhere.” 

But as April drew to a close and business began moving to conference committees, many disability advocacy groups were forging ahead. The Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD), Minnesota Council on Disabilities and many disability-specific advocacy groups saw priority bills still alive, many wrapped into omnibus bills. 

Education, human services and other bills were on the move after the Easter/Passover break, as were bills covering agriculture and broadband needs. One bright spot in the House version of education is spending $1.15 billion of the state surplus on schools, with focuses including student mental health and special education. But worries remain that the omnibus bills from house and Senate are very far apart in some areas. 

Track bills, watch committee and floor sessions and get legislator contact information at https://www.leg.mn.gov/ 

Read more about state budgets at the Minnesota Budget project, a nonpartisan initiative by the Minnesota Council on Nonprofits, at https://www.mnbudgetproject.org/