Repeal of 2011 cuts sought – Dwindling state deficit is cause for cautious optimism

A lower-than-anticipatedstate deficit is good news for Minnesota leaders and for Minnesotans with disabilities who are working on issues at […]

A lower-than-anticipatedstate deficit is good news for Minnesota leaders and for Minnesotans with disabilities who are working on issues at the capitol. But what the February forecast means is still taking shape. The forecast shows a projected deficit of $627 million, down from the $1.1 billion deficit predicted in November 2012.

Gov. Mark Dayton called the lower deficit forecast “very good news for Minnesota.” The new forecast means state lawmakers will have to make fewer spending cuts and/or tax hikes than anticipated a few months ago. It also means stepped-up work on the state budget before adjournment in May. Dayton will unveil a revised budget the week of March 11. But the governor isn’t ready to change his plans to dramatically overhaul the state tax system.

The forecast released February 28, projected a $295 million fund balance in Minnesota’s treasury by June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. Because the state borrowed money from schools in the past, the state must pay $290 million back to schools. The schools are still be owed $801 million.

Growing tax collections are helping to whittle down the state deficit. State officials expect to collect $323 million more in revenue than predicted in November, with $297 million more coming from higher-than-projected income tax payments. But it’s important to note that spending is also down by $117 million, largely because of savings in Medical Assistance payments to health care providers negotiated by the state.

A smaller state deficit would add to the push to repeal past state budget cuts targeting people with disabilities. It could also add fuel to efforts to get more funding for
nursing homes. But some at the capitol caution that even a smaller deficit doesn’t mean getting out long wish lists.

Bills followed by disability advocacy groups and self-advocates continue through the committee process. The high-profile and sometimes controversial effort o obtain spinal cord injury research funds moves head. Advocates are asking for $8 million in the next biennium for research grants to help find a cure.

Dr. Walter Low, a professor and researcher in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Neurosurgery, said new advances in science and technology make the time right for finding a cure through the use of robotics, spinal cord regeneration and drug therapies.

“I believe a cure is good health care policy,” Matthew Rodreick told the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee February 27. Rodreick’s son, Gabe, was injured in a body surfing accident in 2008. Gabe Rodreick uses a wheelchair.

Rick Cardenas, who said he has waited for a cure for more than 50 years, said the universities should fund research with their own budgets, not with state general fund dollars. Nor does he want funding currently used for community programs and services for these individuals to be redirected for the sake of research.

Rep. Laurie Halverson (DFL-Eagan) is sponsoring a bill that would provide research grants to public institutions and establish an advisory committee on spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. Her bill was approved and sent to the House Government Operations Committee. Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Mpls) sponsors a companion awaiting action by the Senate Finance Committee.

Here’s a look at other pieces of legislation:

Repeal the 1.67% Cut to Disability Services. A number of groups are asking that state lawmakers repeal the 1.67% reduction in funding for disability services, which is scheduled to last from July 1, 2013 through Dec. 31, 2013. The Arc Minnesota is one of the groups leading the charge to repeal the cut.

One case made for repeal is that people with disabilities have experienced hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to their services over the past decade, and this would add $12 million more in reductions to those supports. Services for people with disabilities should no longer be used to balance our state budget, advocates said.

The cut was made by state lawmakers in 2011. It was included in the 2011 human services bill in case savings from another provision of the bill didn’t materialize. In that bill, the legislature directed Minnesota’s Commissioner of Human Services to ask the federal government for changes in criteria for the level of care provided at nursing facilities. It was anticipated that changes would save the state of Minnesota money by spending fewer Medicaid dollars.

However, because these savings depended on federal approval of these changes by June 30, 2012, state lawmakers also approved a 1.67% cut in disability services funding if that approval wasn’t obtained. And as it turned out, the federal government did not approve the state’s request by the June 30, 2012 deadline. The legislature delayed the 1.67% cut until July 1, 2013 through payment shifts to disability providers, but the cut is still scheduled to take effect this year. Bills repealing the cut will be introduced soon.

Anti-bullying advocates are making another run at passage of the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act. A coalition of more than 80 groups is working to get legislation passed that would protect all students from bullying, harassment, intimidation and violence at school. The bill has been introduced again.

A 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Education rated Minnesota’s anti-bullying last among the weakest in the country. Efforts to strengthen the law began in 2009. A bill passed the House and Senate in 2009 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Last year Dayton launched a task force to research anti-bullying efforts and inform future legislation. That group submitted its final report in August 2012.

Families whose children have autism or autism spectrum disorder are asking state lawmakers to help cover intensive Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy. The treatment isn’t covered by most insurance providers even though it is often prescribed.

“That (decision) should be between the physician and the family. Don’t discriminate or eliminate any therapies,” Bradley Trahan, leader of the Minnesota Autism Task Force, told the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee.

Last month the committee approved a bill that would require private health insurance providers regulated by the state to include autism spectrum disorder coverage in their policies, including the request therapy. Providers also would have to accept the treatment plan recommended by the patient’s doctor or mental health professional.

Depending upon the intensity of the individual’s plan, treatment can cost between $30,000 and $100,000 per year. Some families carry two policies: paying into their employer plan for themselves and enrolling their child into Medical Assistance and paying a sliding fee to cover their child’s autism treatment. By requiring providers to insure autism therapies, the state could save as much as $1.5 million.

The autism task force is calling for other initiatives as well, such as establishing a website for access to statewide services, among other suggestions found in the task force’s Strategic Plan Report released in December 2012.

Nursing homes could be in line for increased funding, thanks to a bipartisan group of Minnesota lawmakers. They want to increase state funding to nursing homes. They are calling for increasing state nursing home reimbursements by $56 million over the next two years. Otherwise, the legislators fear that nursing homes could close.

The state gave nursing homes $382 million in 2012. The increase is sought because many nursing homes around Minnesota are struggling. Losing nursing homes not only gives people fewer options for care, it also eliminates jobs, according to some state lawmakers. But a possible red flag could be that more funds for nursing homes would be used to justify fewer dollars to keep people in their homes.

Advocates for children with allergies to certain foods or insects bites are fighting for extra protections for their children. State lawmakers are considering a bill this session that would make it easier for schools to obtain epinephrine auto-injectors and store them. The auto-injectors would be available to use in certain scenarios, when a student suffers an allergic reaction. The bill doesn’t mandate that schools carry epinephrine: instead it eliminates the barriers facing school officials who want this measure of protection.

Working actively on the bill are representatives of the Anaphylaxis & Food Allergy Association of Minnesota (AFAA), the Minnesota Ambulance Association, Mylan and Pfizer. The School Nurse Organization of Minnesota, the Board of Pharmacy, Board of Nursing and other groups have all been asked for input and suggestions on the bill. But the Minnesota School Boards Association lead lobbyist has stated that they plan to oppose the bill because its members have not said it is needed.

Cooking with ovens that date from 1924 may sound like activity at a museum. But that is what staff at the Minnesota State Academies for the Deaf and Blind do every day to prepare residents’ meals. The two residential schools need $85,000 for new kitchen equipment and upgrades, including a new dishwasher and replacing the elderly ovens.

The request to the House Education Finance Committee is unusual, and provoked some amused comments and questions when it was presented last month.  Some lawmakers asked whether the state and the academies could find a more efficient way to take care of such business. Still, committee chairman Rep. Paul Marquart (DFL Dilworth) agreed that it was time to replace the ovens.

One challenge is that the request is being made in a non-bonding year. Another is that it isn’t the kind of financing request the committee usually hears.

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