State surplus, bill deadlines loom over session

State surplus, bill deadlines loom over session

 A state surplus and upcoming committee deadlines are on tap at the capitol, as the Minnesota Legislature rolls into March. Dozens of disability-related bills are still in play. It’s meant a flurry of hearings and meetings for disability community activists and advocacy groups. 

While a slightly higher than anticipated state surplus of $1.5 billion is cause for optimism, Gov. Tim Walz and state lawmakers must still reach agreement on how much of that can be used for extra spending or for cutting taxes. 

The wild card looming over everything is the spread of the coronavirus and how that could affect the economy. A state response to coronavirus has emerged as a priority for the governor. 

Walz has urged caution and has focused on making sure the state’s “rainy day fund” is in good shape in light of a potential downturn in the economy. As Access Press went to press, plunging stock markets were a growing concern. 

Some familiar issues are gaining traction, including affordable housing, more funding for disability service programs and transit. 

The quest to lower insulin prices, a priority for Walz and many state lawmakers, is an area where House and Senate leaders are seeking an early compromise. A measure brought forward in 2019 fell short in the final hours of the session, disappointing people with diabetes and people whose family members have died to due to high insulin costs. 

Committee deadlines come into play this month. The first deadline is March 20, followed by the second deadline March 27. The third deadline is April 3. Deadlines winnow the field of bills that eventually are signed into law, so the pressure is on during what is largely a policy and bonding session. 

The first deadline is for committees to act favorably on bills in the body of origin, be it the Senate or the House. The second deadline is for committees to act favorably upon bills, or bill companions, that met the first deadline in the other body. 

The third deadline is for committees to act favorably on major appropriation and finance bills. There are exceptions. Deadlines don’t apply to the House committees on Capital Investment, Ways and Means, Taxes, or Rules and Legislative Administration, nor to the Senate committees on Capital Investment, Finance, Taxes, or Rules and Administration. 

Here’s a look at how a few disability-related issues are faring thus far: 

*Proposals are anticipated this session on changes at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), which has been assailed for substance abuse treatment overpayments, high-profile resignations and a host of other issues. Some state lawmakers want to break up DHS into smaller agencies. Disability rights advocates continue to be worried that the problems mean it could be harder to get additional program funding this session. 

In February it was announced that DHS made overpayments of up to $28.9 million over three years to managed care organizations and health care providers. It was found that more than 47,000 Minnesotans had duplicate accounts. 

Legislators were also told in February that computer problems have disrupted health care for some people who rely on Medicaid. DHS leadership has pledged solutions to the overpayment issue and to other issues that have wracked the department. DHS will repay the federal government. 

*Autism awareness training would be required for law enforcement officers, in an effort to provide safer interaction between people on the spectrum and police. HF 3630 provides financial resources for regular in-service training for law enforcement officers. 

The focus on law enforcement autism awareness comes as there is an overall push to raise awareness of all types of disabilities with law enforcement officials, to de-escalate situations and do more to keep people out of harm’s way. 

“Making sure there are some standards for recognizing behavior that might be suggestive of someone on the spectrum I think is very important and help ensure that everyone is safe,” bill co-sponsor Rep. Mike Freiberg (DFL-Golden Valley) told KSTP-TV. Freiberg has a child with autism, which is why he’s pushing to see the bill turned into law. 

“Making sure law enforcement is able to recognize what is going on in a time of crisis is very important to me personally,” Freiberg said. 

The Autism Society of Minnesota is providing training and has worked with Twin Cities area police departments. “Really more than anything it provides an awareness,” said Woodbury officer Scott McCafferty, who attended a training. “Kind of a reminder to slow things down to be a little bit more patient and take your time in scenarios that you might otherwise kind of rush through.” 

The Autism Society of Minnesota said its training also provides officers with knowledge of how to de-escalate a situation. 

People with disabilities could no longer be paid a sub-minimum wage, under a proposal that passed a house committee in late February. The measure would phase out the practice by 2024. 

Minnesota would become the fourth state in the nation to prohibit employers from paying people with disabilities less than the state’s minimum wage if the proposal becomes law. But the measure has sparked a mixed reaction. 

While many people with disabilities say they need equal pay for equal work, there is pushback from parents whose adult children work at some of the roughly 100 sheltered workshops around the state. The workshops pay less under a longtime federal law that bases pay on productivity instead of a fixed hourly wage, a measure that dates from the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

Approximately 10,000 Minnesotans are employed in sheltered workshop settings. The practice has been found to be discriminatory. Some states have shut the workshops down in the face of federal litigation. 

A phase-out is seen as a way to replace the sheltered workshops, but some parents contend that in small towns, there are no other employment options for people with disabilities. One comment during testimony is that the workshops are often the only form of transportation in a community. The social aspects offered by the workshops, also known as day activity centers, was also cited. 

Some parents said it is a choice for their children to work at sub-minimum wages and that choices shouldn’t be taken away before there are alternatives provided.