It’s a daunting combination: a smaller-than-anticipated state surplus, a $1.4 billion bonding bill, a short legislative
session and many lawmakers taking their final bows in an election year with every House and Senate seat up for grabs. These are among issues hanging over the 2016 session of the Minnesota Legislature.
Legislators went back to work March 8 under the shadow of the contentious 2015 session, which ended without agreement on major measures including a tax bill and a comprehensive transportation bill. Because so much business was left unfinished last session, capitol observers note that state lawmakers’ and Gov. Mark Dayton’s time and attention will be divided among a large number of issues.
Disability advocacy groups and self-advocates have worked for months on their legislative priorities, to be ready for the start of session March 8. How those concerns will fare with so many other variables remains to be seen. Medical Assistance (MA) spend-down and asset changes, increases in caregiver compensation, more access to mental health programs and supports, Olmstead Plan-related measures, changes in school discipline, more access to assistive technology, and ways to deal with a growing number of accessibility-based lawsuits are among the issues on the table.
Anne Henry of the Minnesota Disability Law Center recently addressed attendees at the Minnesota State Council on Disability (MSCOD) legislative forum. She said a short session means tight timelines to get bills through. “There’s only three weeks of hearings before a bill has to get through one side or another,” she said. The deadline for a bill to get through either the House or Senate is April 1, with bills needing to get through the committee process of both bodies by April 8. The finance or major appropriate deadline is April 21. “So again, a very, very quick timeline for bills.”
One potential game changer announced just before the start of the session is a proposed state constitutional amendment. It would allow voters to decide whether the constitution should dedicate funding to long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities. The amendment was brought forward earlier this month by Sen. Kent Eken (DFL – Twin Valley).
At a March 3 press conference, the lawmakers noted that more than 1 million Minnesotans will be over the age of 65 by the year 2030 and that most of those Minnesotans will need long-term care. But there is no dedicated, reliable source of funding “I am committed to shining a spotlight on the problem, turning the landing lights on and finding a solution,” Eken said.
The Eken plan would provide an estimated $1.2 billion a year by adding a tax on the top 4 percent of wealthiest Minnesotans. The tax would be added on people earning more than $118,500 annually.
Eken’s proposal calls for a 25-year state constitutional amendment. Eken said that is enough to ride out what he called “an age wave coming toward us, the likes of which we have never seen.”
Eken, who has worked for years on funding for people with disabilities, elders and their caregivers, was joined by Rep. Jerry Newtown (DFL – Coon Rapids) and Sen. John Hoffman (DFL-Champlain). They said they would be open to looking at plans other legislators bring forward but that the state needs a permanent, long-term solution. Minnesota’s constitution already requires the dedication of funds for outdoors, arts and transportation projects, so supporters see dedicated care funds as making sense.
Money is central to every legislative debate. One unpleasant surprise came when the February economic forecast reduced the state’s projected budget surplus to $900 million. A $1.2 billion surplus was projected last year. After the forecast’s release, Dayton said the forecast should cause everyone to pause with their plans and that he would have to rework his budget.
Signs of weakening in the national economy affected the forecast. State budget officials said Minnesota’s economy remains healthy, but they are concerned about longer-term trends.
Dayton had released a record $1.4 billion bonding bill in January. Many legislators said they’d like to cut that, even by half.
Key issues this session for Minnesotans with disabilities will be familiar ones. Changing the MA spend-down and asset limits are again a top priority for the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD). “People are required to spend down deep into the poverty to access needed services,” said Susie Schatz, one of the consortium policy committee leaders. While MA is needed because it gives access to health care and home and community-based services necessary for independent living, current limits force thousands of adults with disabilities to live below the poverty line, trapping them in poverty. The spend-down is the money a person with disabilities is expected to spend on medical bills to bring income down low enough to quality for MA. Current law will leave only $792 a month to live on. Asset limits are $3,000 in savings per person, or $6,000 per couple. This limit leaves people with disabilities vulnerable to catastrophic emergency and struggling to get out of poverty. Making changes will bring the program for people with disabilities in line with other programs, and allow people to pay for basic needs. Schatz said that while the spend-down is not a bad thing, “it’s way too low for people for people to live independently.”
Another returning issue is that of caregiver wages. The 5% Campaign is now the Best Life Alliance, a coalition of more than 130 Minnesota organizations, families and supporters. They are asking state legislators to find to address a workforce crisis in Minnesota’s community-based services that support 108,000 people with disabilities and older adults. That would be done with a 5 percent rate increase for home and community-based services. Eken and Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake) are the chief bill authors.
Speakers at the MSCOD forum and at other legislative forums have said they have had trouble keeping staff, because of low pay to caregivers. Agencies have struggled to fill vacancies. One woman said she had had to work with five agencies in one year. Others said that constant turnover in staff affects quality and consistency of care, and makes it harder to be independent.
“More and more, people are having difficulty finding and keeping the staff that they need,” said Henry.
Henry said there are many other issues to track, with some tied to federal mandates. One complicated issue to be addressed at the state and federal level is spousal impoverishment rules. The changes, which Henry called “very troublesome,” could have negative effects on about 450 families. People who need services could lose eligibility, so state and federal officials are work with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to make changes.
Another complex issue that will take center stage at the capitol is that of accessibility. A number of lawsuits have been filed in Minnesota, demanding that businesses immediately make changes to make buildings accessible, or pay large fees.
Two attorneys have filed many of the lawsuits. Many businesses groups are rallying for legislative changes, indicating that while they support the need for access, the legal demands have forced some businesses to close. MSCOD’s David Fenley said the state council is working on law changes that would provide a clear process and time for businesses to become compliant with accessibility laws. Businesses would be informed of their obligations to provide access for all, while not forcing businesses to deal with initial demands for money. This proposal, while hailed by business groups as a good compromise and process, was questioned by some at the MSCOD forum. One man said that many businesses don’t comply with laws on accessibility and that lawsuits are the only way to ensure that changes are made.
While the capitol rotunda remains closed for rallies and many groups won’t be organizing large gatherings,
some annual events are moving ahead. Watch for advocates to arrive from around the state for the big events.
ARRM and MOHR host ARRM/MOHR Day at the Capitol Tuesday, March 15, to call for the 5 percent rate increase. More than 1,000 advocates are expected. The group will rally at the state’s armory at 10 a.m. and then go to meet with legislators. Get more details here.
The Minnesota Mental Health Legislative Network hosts Mental Health Day on the Hill on Thursday, March 31. Events start at 10 a.m. at Christ Lutheran Church on the Hill. Get more details at here.