With Gov. Mark Dayton heading the executive branch and Republican majorities steering the Minnesota Legislature, the 2011 session began Jan. 4 with a daunting task: plug the state’s $6.2 billion budget deficit before the fiscal year ends July 1.
At roughly 19 percent of the state’s overall budget, the gap between projected spending and anticipated revenue will not be easily bridged. DFLer Dayton has pledged to seek additional tax revenue from high-income Minnesotans as a part of the solution. Republican leaders in both the House and Senate say that proposal will be dead on arrival.
So what does all this mean for people with disabilities? Here are a number of things everyone with an interest in disability programs and services should understand.
Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers have made it clear in many public forums that Minnesota has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Their top priority is creating new jobs and growing the state’s economy. How they will do this is uncertain, but additional taxes will not be part of the solution. Also uncertain: where the new majority will stand on key elements of the federal health reform law. While they oppose the expansion of Medicaid (as did outgoing Gov. Tim Pawlenty) it’s unclear what position they’ll take on certain grant or innovation opportunities, as well as the emerging health insurance exchange. The latter needs to be up and running by 2014, but will take years to plan and implement.
Follow the money
While people with disabilities often rely on many areas of government to remain independent, the most common form of support is the Medicaid program. Unfortunately, this is the fastest growing part of the state budget, now accounting for 30 percent of state general fund expenditures. More than two-thirds of that spending is devoted to the elderly and disabled. That means it will be nearly impossible to cut the state’s budget without significant harm to these vulnerable populations. The chair of the House human services budget committee, Rep. Jim Abeler, has said the overall human services budget cuts will total around $1.6 billion. That’s almost as much as the state’s total public safety budget.
The rookie factor
Nearly one in three legislators at the capitol are new. Many have no background in local politics. Republicans account for 54 of the 60 new incoming members. Many of these individuals are more conservative than moderate and were elected on a ‘less government, no more taxes’ platform. Learning the ropes to understand the rules of the legislative process is hard enough. But digging into the mind-numbing minutia of state budget spreadsheets (to understand, for example, the implications of proposed changes to inpatient Medicaid reimbursement rates, disproportionate share hospital payment percentages and their cumulative effect on rural hospitals) is something that leaves even capitol veterans scratching their heads. Many of these rookies are likely to defer to their caucus leaders for guidance on policy content, but remember: many of these leaders will be holding power as committee chairs for the first time. How they’ll handle the pressure and responsibility of making huge cuts is unknown and untested.
Executive power is great
While the legislature will in all likelihood pass a budget that significantly and negatively impacts the disability community, don’t forget the role Dayton will play. The power of the governor’s veto is significant. He and his team of appointees also control every state government agency. There’s a great deal the governor can do by executive order and the legislature can do nothing to stop or alter it (especially in the area of health care and opportunities created by the federal Affordable Care Act). Because of the large philosophical divide between the two government branches, many lobbyists are already predicting a special session come spring.
Power of the people
The scope of the budget challenge and the educational opportunities presented by having 60 new lawmakers are equally great. Members of the disability community and the providers who serve them must engage in the political process and explain the value of state programs and services, as well as the consequences that will occur if they are significantly scaled back. Coalitions like the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (www.mnccd.org) have been successful in stemming some adverse proposals, but this year, individuals need to develop ongoing relationships with their legislators to support the efforts of those who advocate full time at the state capitol. Please visit the website or call Anni Simons at 651-523-0823, x112 for more information on how to become involved.