A new coalition of advocates for the elderly and disabled in Minnesota is planning an aggressive campaign to persuade legislators to pass a 5 percent increase in their budget next session, which would cost the state an additional $86 million in the current budgeting period.
Their case is simple: Group homes and in-home care providers have faced cuts or frozen funding over the past several years as the state battled recurring budget deficits. Now that state revenues appear to be trending in the black, they want a pay increase for their workers similar to the raise that nursing home staffers got under DFL majorities last session. That money would go directly into the paychecks of caregivers in the industry, advocates say, and hopefully help stop notoriously high staff turnover rates.
“The only big failure that we had in this year’s [health and human services budget] bill was that we did not give this group the same raise that we gave to nursing home workers, and they basically do the same thing,” said DFL Rep. Tom Huntley, chair of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee. Huntley has made the campaign his priority next session, kicking off the so-called “5 percent Campaign” at an August news conference in his hometown of Duluth. “I feel like it was a personal failure on my part not to treat them the same.”
Funding for the disabled and elderly, which is set entirely by the Legislature and paid for with state and federal dollars, saw a 1 percent increase built into their budget last session. That roughly $26 million increase will kick in on April 1, but the groups were hoping for a larger boost under all-new DFL majorities.
They face even more challenges in 2014, a non-budgeting year that will see a particularly short session heading into the fall election. They are hopeful the November and February economic forecasts will show extra revenue in the state’s coffers, but other groups are already clamoring to use that money to repeal a handful of tax increases passed last session.
“The public understands nursing homes, because everybody has got a relative that is in one. The visibility of people who take care of handicapped people is considerably less,” Huntley added. “We have got to increase the visibility of this issue if this is going to happen next year.”
Steve Larson, senior policy director for Arc Minnesota, which represents people with disabilities, has spent years asking the Legislature for more funding. This year, he feels momentum building for the cause.
“It’s a very easy case to make when you look at the cuts that we’ve had and you look at the impact that it has had on turnover and quality,” he said. According to advocates, the funding increase would boost the paychecks of 112,000 people who work in the industry and have watched their median wage level decrease by about 10 percent over the last decade. “What we are going to do is, we are going to have a proactive campaign to make our case. Without getting a 5 percent increase, we will have higher turnover rates.”
The campaign has brought together 87 different groups, which will be led by a steering committee that Larson co-chairs. They’ve set up a communications team and a field operation, and a Capitol rally is planned for mid-November. In addition to holding a series of town halls across the state, the coalition plans to meet individually with all 201 legislators, said Bruce Nelson, CEO of ARRM, an association that represents group homes.
“The main reason legislators said we didn’t get a bigger increase last session is that we are really expensive,” Nelson said. “That was the main reason we were given. At the same time, this will now be five years that there hasn’t been an increase, and there was also a decrease in there. We have no source of income other than government.”
The campaign has a bipartisan group of legislators already on board, including Huntley, DFL Rep. Jerry Newton, DFL Sens. John Hoffman and Kent Eken, and GOP Reps. Sarah Anderson and Rod Hamilton. “The longer you can keep people in their homes and in their communities, the better transition it is in their life,” said Anderson, a Republican from Plymouth whose father used long-term community care services.
The issue is also personal for Eken, a first-term senator from Twin Valley. His brother is mentally disabled, and his father is also in community-based long-term care. “We are talking about the most vulnerable of our citizens, and for that reason it’s time to do this,” Eken said. “I don’t think we can afford to wait any longer. It is really becoming a dire situation.”
Eken said he’s willing to push for new revenue to help pay for the budget increase, but he knows that will be a tall order in a non-budgeting year. “There’s the thought that the whole budget that you put together last year would start to unravel,” he said. “I’m going to try my hardest to do it and convince others to do it, but I’m not going to say it’s going to be a slam dunk.”
Other funding pressures
House Speaker Paul Thissen is concerned about what the request could mean for the entire budget, and he’s holding the line on raising any new revenues next session.
“We got a structurally balanced budget for the first time in a long time, so I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that, because that hurts everyone,” Thissen said. “They certainly have a compelling argument, but we have to be able to pay for it. We will not be raising any additional taxes to do this, so it will have to come from cuts or savings elsewhere, or if there is new revenue in the forecast. If there is some revenue in the budget, this would be among the top priorities for the caucus.”
Business groups and a bipartisan group of legislators are also pushing for the repeal of three business-to-business tax increases passed during the 2013 legislative session. To repeal all three of the new tax increases – on warehousing, telecommunication gear, and business equipment repairs – it would cost the state more than $300 million. In addition, state law requires a certain amount of any budget surplus to go toward paying back debts owed to the state’s school districts.
“I agree with the Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) providers, who believe it was unfair that the Legislature gave nursing homes a 5 percent increase for this year, while they received only a 1 percent increase,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement to Capitol Report. “Whether that inequity can be addressed in next year’s session depends, first and foremost, upon next February’s revenue forecast. By law, the first $225 million of any additional surplus for this biennium will go to finish repaying our school districts. If additional surplus funds then remain, the Legislature and I will need to prioritize requests for supplemental funding, such as HCBS providers’, and those for tax cuts. Although I consider HCBS funding to be a high priority, I cannot compare it to others, until I know what they all are and how much money, if any, will be available for them.”
“It is a difficult thing to accomplish,” added DFL Sen. Tony Lourey, chair of the upper chamber’s Health and Human Finances Committee. “But there was some incredibly compelling testimony about this issue in the last session. This is something that we need to continue to pay attention to and raise the public awareness.”