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With giant budget shortfall, Legislature’s Health and Human Services advocates are girding for tough session

Even before last week’s announcement of a projected $5.3 billion state budget shortfall, key legislators in the Health and Human Services realm warned advocates for people with disabilities that the upcoming legislative session will be very difficult.

But don’t give up hope, they said last week.

Speaking at a forum Tuesday sponsored by the Minnesota State Council on Disability, Senate Majority leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said that  legislators will try to do something to help residents during the economic downturn. One possibility: investing in the workforce, with more training and placement opportunities.

He said that legislation passed last session should make it easier to cope with the coming financial tsunami: Cost containments made in health care should help prepare the state for possible Obama administration changes affecting the universality and affordability of health care.

“Have hope,” he said. “We will be cutting budgets, and I hope you have some input into that, but also [trying] to make some investment in jobs.”

Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, noted that budget cuts made last year fell disproportionately on health and human services.

“Sixty percent of the cuts for the current biennium were in health and human services,” said Thissen, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee. “Those proportions, going forward, would be devastating,” he said.

He said he and other legislators will work hard to make sure that the health and human services sector doesn’t bear more than its share, which proportionately would be about 30 percent of overall cuts.

“We’re going to have hard conversations about the money we’re spending. It’s going to be a tough year, and there are going to be cuts. But health and human services is mostly about spending money on people who are older and people who have disabilities, and those are the people who, most Minnesotans would agree, need our help,” he said.

Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, offered some advice to advocates:

“All the organizations that get state funding help will be asked to come before the Finance Divisions and asked to state their case. Things are so dire that everybody should work seriously and creatively to get out your message of all the good things that you do.

“One of the things we’ll look at is your creativity and how you find the best ways to serve constituents. I expect some organizations will not get continued funding this year because of the financial trouble we’re in.

“Now, that doesn’t mean come in with four-color brochures; that would count against you at this point. Instead, come in with your stories and people you help.”

Jeff Nachbar,  public policy director for the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota, agreed.

“The only way to protect our programs is to make sure people are telling their stories to legislators, to make the programs real and show the impact they have on people’s lives,” he said.

Anne Henry, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center, noted that Personal Care Attendant programs will be among those targeted for change. She urged advocates to get involved on that sensitive issue and inform people about possible cuts.

“Some who use personal care attendants might be isolated and won’t be at the table unless those who know them let them know what’s happening,” she said.

Representatives of the aging community, too, attended the forum because so many of their issues — such as programs that allow them to continue to live in their homes and communities — mirror the issues in the disability community.

Joan Willshire, executive director of the Minnesota State Council on Disability, said the disability community will work with legislators to make sure that needed budget cuts are done fairly and don’t overly affect any one group.

(Full disclosure: I’ve done contract writing projects for the disability council in the past.)

“We’ve been through this before, and the disability community is very resilient,” Willshire said. “It’s important that all the many agencies and organizations work together to find good solutions for everybody.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Kassie Church on 12/08/2008 - 01:34 pm.

    Interesting that Paul Thissen said: “But health and human services is mostly about spending money on people who are older and people who have disabilities, and those are the people who, most Minnesotans would agree, need our help.”

    I don’t think this is correct. I think much more money goes to children and families, who may or may not have disabilities. And if it is true, it is because of the money that goes to nursing home payments, not to actual programs for the elderly or disabled.

    This is going to be a crazy time for policy makers. I truly believe that 95% of the programs offered by the Dept. of Human Services are incredibly important. The other 5% are just important. To chose between children and the elderly or child support and child protection or medical assistance and food assistance is very hard and I do not envy those making the decisions.

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