Several hundred advocates for disability services packed into the state Capitol rotunda on Tuesday to call on Minnesota legislators to increase their funding by 5 percent next session.
The so-called “5 Percent Campaign” is seeking the increase after the DFL-controlled Legislature passed a 5 percent increase for nursing homes this spring, but only increased funding for disability services by 1 percent. Supporters say disability workers provide similar care to nursing home staff, but they’ve faced years of stagnant or slashed funding.
“We are at a critical time. We’ve had a number of years, 10 years or more, where we’ve had a series of cuts to programs,” said Steve Larson, policy director for the Arc of Minnesota, a group that represents people with disabilities. “The quality of those services is going to suffer unless we can pay direct support staff what they deserve.”
The increase would cost about $86 million in the current budgeting period, and advocates are hoping there will be extra cash in the state’s coffers after the November and February budget forecasts. That money would go directly into the paychecks of caregivers in the industry, and hopefully help stop notoriously high staff turnover rates, supporters say.
But there are competing demands for any extra dollars, including a statutory requirement to pay back money borrowed from the state’s school districts, as well as a push from business groups to undo several business-to-business tax increases passed last session. Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL leadership have been hesitant to pledge support to the campaign until after they see the upcoming budget forecasts.
Carrying signs that said “5 percent now” and “We give 100 percent and all we want is 5 percent,” supporters chanted “we will rock you” and “make the right choice” in the Capitol halls. The proposal has 45 legislative supporters, including the House bill author Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, and Senate sponsor Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley.
“It’s not the year we normally deal with the budget,” Eken, who has a disabled brother, told the crowd. “But we need to make a special exception this year because there was one group who was left behind.”
The proposal has support from House Health and Human Services Finance Chairman Tom Huntley, who says the campaign is his top priority for the 2014 legislative session. Republican Senate Minority Leader David Hann is also supporting the effort, along GOP Sens. Mary Kiffmeyer, Dave Brown and Reps. Jim Abeler, Sarah Anderson and Rod Hamilton.
“We still spent a lot of money in the whole human services area. It’s about humans, it’s about service, it’s about serving them well. It’s also a matter of making choices,” said Abeler, the former health and human services budget chairman who is also running for U.S. Senate. “There is no partisan divide in this, because we all love you, because you are important.”