Minnesotans with disabilities, their families and caregivers face uncertain times as a May 23 adjournment date looms for the 2016 Minnesota Legislature. Advocates working on many issues were forging ahead as Access Press went to press, hanging on to an attitude of “it isn’t over until it’s over.”
But without House and Senate agreement on funding for key issues, many advocates are apprehensive. They are as weary of the fight as they are worried that without important funding for initiatives, a ripple effect of service cuts will spread across the state. There are fears that people with disabilities will have to continue to live in poverty and lack adequate caregiver support.
And there is weariness and frustration among advocates, who are tired of lip service and of not being listened to. They tire of the admonition to come back in 2017 and try again for funding.
“We need to demonstrate to supporters that we’re in it until the end,” said Susie Schatz of On April 19 hundreds of Minnesotans with disabilities gathered for one last push on key needs. Inside the Department of Transportation cafeteria, groups strategized, made signs and discussed work to be done that day to press for Medical Assistance (MA) spend-down reforms. Inside the State Office Building, people with traumatic brain injuries called state leaders to explain the need to change the spend-downs.
Outside of the State Office Building a large group rallied to make the case for the caregiver wage increase and support the Best Life Alliance. The alliance is leading the charge for a five percent increase in caregiver wages.
With many caregivers making about $11 per hour on average, there are more than 8,700 job openings around the state. Many caregivers are working two or three jobs to make ends meet. Others have left the profession.
“We know how important it is for caregivers, for people with disabilities, all across the state of Minnesota, that we get a five percent rate increase in 2016,” ARRM CEO Bruce Nelson said at the rally. He and others were joined by legislative allies. They led the crowd in chants and cheers, with supporters waving signs on a drizzly morning.
By early May policy and spending bills had gotten through the initial House and Senate floor process. The House and Senate hadn’t hammered out their differences on health and human services funding. Conference committee will be taking up the various bills and trying to reach compromise. Bills then go back to the House and Senate, and then to Gov. Mark Dayton for his signature.
At a recent MN-CCD gathering there were questions and soul-searching about how to draw more attention and support for key issues for Minnesotans with disabilities. How MN-CCD and its member groups should present issues and represent themselves is a topic that is likely to be discussed long after the session ends.
One oft-heard comment was that while disability community members hear support for their issues when meeting with state lawmakers one-on-one, their votes aren’t always consistent.
Issues raised range from what is seen as a lack of action on implementing the state’s Olmstead Plan, which is meant to fully integrate people with disabilities into the community, to the frustration of having key needs pitted against each other. Another huge red flag for advocates is that there is a view of people with disabilities as not being seen as contributing to their home communities.
Focusing more on working directly with the governor’s staff to have budget input earlier in the process is one idea MNCCD leaders discussed. Another tactic is to focus more on systems change and long-term solutions.
House, Senate pass first bills
Bills passed out of committee by the April 15 deadline contained mixed news. Neither the House nor the Senate included MA reform and spend-down changes, which would increase the disability spenddown limit to 100 percent. It would also increase the asset limits for individuals with disabilities to $10,000 for individuals and $18,000 for couples. The measure got through needed committees but didn’t make it into the final bill.
The House had a one-time provision for the five percent caregiver increase coming out of committee.
The Senate bill didn’t include the increase. Then it was on to the floor. The full House approved its health and human services, state government and public safety supplemental bill in the early morning hours of April 29. The vote capped more than 12 hours of a sometimes free-ranging debate.
The Senate passed its supplemental bill April 28. On the House side, Rep. Steve Drazkowski (RMazeppa) successfully amended the bill to require that the state contract with an outside vender to analyze and determine if everyone signed up for Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare is indeed eligible for the benefits. Drazkowski believes that the state is wasting millions of dollars on people who aren’t eligible for the programs. He cited past state audits as a reason for the outside study. Savings generated would go into a fund that would be dedicated to the five percent wage increase sought by the Best Life Alliance. That move angered some five percent campaign supporters in the House, who criticized the bill for not doing more to cover the wage increase.
The action now shifts to the conference committees before bills return to the House and Senate. Hearings have wound down for the most part and it becomes a waiting game.
A number of measures are still in play, including mental health, special education, bonding, parks and trails access, and public safety measures. Still alive is the quest for funding for the Department of Labor and Industry to do education and outreach to small businesses on their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was going to Senate Finance Committee as Access Press went to press. This legislation is prompted by a flurry of accessibility lawsuits filed against small businesses.
Advocates for the Transportation Independence for Many or TIM’s Bill had gotten $25,000 to fund a task force to look at autonomous vehicle technology or so-called “driverless vehicles” in the Senate, but an appropriation request was set aside. As of deadline the measure had stalled in the House.
Another measure generating attention is that of allowing people with disabilities and the elderly to live in small houses on family property. The homes are described as “granny pods.” The legislation would make it legal, unless a local government bans it, to allow temporary trailer-like homes to be placed on caregivers’ land, even if zoning ordinances otherwise would not allow it. The homes could be located there for up to a year, and the resident must be under health care. The homes would be limited to 300 square feet. Lutheran Social Services. She is one of many Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD) leaders working on issues.