Special session looms in June as state lawmakers' work stalled

Special session looms in June as state lawmakers' work stalled

It’s on to extra innings for the 2020 Minnesota Legislature. The regular session sputtered to a halt May 18, with many disability issues unresolved. As Access Press went to press, Gov. Tim Walz and state lawmakers were discussing a mid-June special session.

The special session is needed if Walz is to continue the peacetime state of emergency during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Consternation” was a word used when the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD) discussed the session on May 19. 2020 will be remembered as the year when the pandemic upended business as usual. The sessions began with hopes for policy changes and some extra spending in light of a $1.5 billion surplus. But the pandemic sent committees and floor session to a mix of virtual and in- person voting. That brought frustration as it was difficult to follow what was happening.

The pandemic also plunged state finances into an estimated $2.4 billion deficit, dashing hopes for additional spending.

Lawmakers were unable to reach agreement on many key bills. One big disappointment is that a temporary $15 per hour increase in personal care attendant (PCA) pay wasn’t approved. With shortages of PCAs and other direct support staff, that was seen as critical.

What was supposed to be the centerpiece of the 2020 session, the bonding bill, fell in the final days. State academies, hospitals and treatment facilities, state parks access improvements and affordable housing projects were in line for funding.

Several other major bills fell by the wayside. While the health and human services policy bill did pass, that wasn’t the case for the human services reform finance and policy omnibus bill. The latter bill weighed in at more than 400 pages. It contained provisions sought by many disability advocacy groups including flexibility for the Department of Human Services to continue waiving certain statutory regulations in response to COVID-19.

It also included technical and codification changes to Medical Assistance spenddowns and Consumer-Directed Community Supports. It spelled out policy statements for Employment First, Self-Direction First, and Independent Living First. Other focuses including a number of changes for group homes, and sexual violence prevention training for direct support professionals.

Nor was legislation passed on renter protections and emergency housing, or on education policy. A tax bill didn’t pass.

Several important measures passed and got Walz’s signature. One early win is the Alex Smith Insulin Affordability Act, which makes the drug available for low- income people or those who lack insurance. The law is named for a diabetic young man who died after he couldn’t pay for insulin.

The drug transparency pricing bill was also signed into law, which should provide lower prices.

Another win is in the area of guardianship, where many changes are made. A stronger bill of rights for people under guardianship provides benefits including a mandate that they be engaged in decision-making, have more access to employment supports, and get proper notice when a guardian puts limits on visitation. “Supported decision- making” is clearly defined and the word “ward” is removed. Another change will be seen as judges consider guardianship orders, and weigh alternatives that are less restrictive.

Election law changes are welcome, with more money for additional absentee ballot requests, personal protective equipment and sanitizing products for election judges, and changes to polling places to allow for social distancing.