With the regular legislative session over, Minnesota’s disability community is weighing its gains and losses. The regular session gaveled to a close May 18, ending with a fight between Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators over education funding. Education – including early childhood to grade 12 special education – is just one of the issues that will be on the table during the early June special legislative session.
“We’re not quite sure what will happen with special education,” said Jean Bender, a longtime advocate. The state’s special education advocates ended the regular legislative session with disappointment as a number of needed programs and services for children weren’t funded in the vetoed bill. A number of issues were the focus this session for the Coalition for Children, which will be active during the special session.
Dayton vetoed the education bill and its $17 billion in spending, saying more should be spent in light of the state’s $2 billion surplus. He especially wants more funding for early childhood education. He and the Republican-led House have clashed over what Dayton criticizes as tax cuts for millionaires and property tax relief for large corporations. The session ended with about $1
billion on the table.
Dayton signed several bills into law including health and human services. The governor’s signature brought several gains for the disability community, including changes to high premiums for Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities (MA-EPD) and changes to the MA spend-down. A number of other measures sought by disability advocacy groups were also funded, including spinal cord injury research, housing programs, more pay for nursing home workers and State Quality Council support. Other gains were made in the areas of elections reform and the ability to text 911 for help.
Mental health advocates had plenty to celebrate as a $46 million package was approved to expand services. That amount includes $6.6 million to allow the state to add 150 pediatric mental
health beds to expand services for children. The goal is to build a statewide-network to keep children out of emergency rooms and inpatient psychiatric wards. Some parents have had to
send their children out of state for care. Another $847,000 was provided for respite care for families in
The gains for mental health are the largest in state history, according to the Mental Health Legislative Network. The network waged a high-profile campaign at the capitol, under the motto “We know what works: Build on it.” While there were clashes over issues such as how services should be provided in rural Minnesota, advocates agreed that it was a year of historic progress.
Suicide prevention got needed support, including $1 million for the Text for Life program and $449,000 for other suicide prevention efforts. Mental health crisis services received $8.57 million.
But a high-profile campaign for a five percent wage increase for caregivers stalled, much to the disappointment of a large group of advocates. Several other initiatives also failed to find a place in the final budget.
As Access Press went to press, Dayton and House and Senate leaders agreed to hold a special session in the State Office Building. That’s because the House and Senate chambers are now torn up for renovation. But political leaders were still hammering out the issues to be covered during the special session. In the meantime, layoff notices went out in anticipation of a partial state government shutdown July 1.
The special session will covered vetoed or unfinished bills on education, environmental issues, agriculture, legacy funding and jobs. It’s possible that bonding, transportation and taxes will also come up. Transportation was an issue with disability community involvement, through the Move MN group. But what was passed and signed into law was basically a “lights on” measure keeping funding levels current. For people with disabilities, that doesn’t address longstanding needs for improved paratransit services around the state.
Looking back on a session that began with a large surplus and even with talk of lawmakers being able to work efficiently and skip a legislative session in 2016, disability community advocates were left wondering how things had gone so badly. But the surplus and the talk of getting things done had to be balanced against political conflicts as well as leadership changes on key committees. Another factor this session was the capitol renovation and how it posted challenges of accessibility and visibility for issues. With the rotunda area under construction, many groups chose not to have rallies that typically draw needed attention to their causes.
At the final Friday Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD) meeting, several people said that lessons from 2015 need to be carried forward if the community is to be successful in the future. But MN-CCD leadership tried to focus on the positive, honor activists and legislators and look to 2016 at its legislative review gathering June 3.
MA spend-down reform will continue to be a legislative in 2016 as the spend-down forces people who are already at low incomes to be driven further into poverty. MA spend-down reform was the top issue for MN-CCD this past session, said Susie Schatz of Lutheran Social Services. She said disability community leaders are already discussing strategies to bring the spend-down issue forward again in 2016 and to also address ways to change the limits on assets people can have,
Articles about the 2015 MN-CCD All-Stars and legislative champions, as well as additional new laws, will appear in the July issue of Access Press.