Gov. Mark Dayton Tuesday heard pleas from Minnesota’s seniors and their advocates to spare the elderly and disabled from steep cuts in the GOP legislative majority’s health and human services budget.
Lawmakers are trying to reconcile two different HHS bills in conference committee. Cuts to programs for the elderly and disabled in the House bill stand at $256 million; the Senate would reduce funding by $108 million.
All told, the GOP aims to cut state HHS spending by roughly $1.7 billion to quash Minnesota’s $5 billion projected budget shortfall.
Dayton’s budget features cuts as well, including reduced state funding for the Elderly Waiver and other alternative-care plans that keep aging seniors in their homes.
“I’m primarily here to listen and to learn,” Dayton told dozens of seniors at City Passport, a care center in St. Paul for those “50 and better.”
In a roundtable discussion, Dayton heard about struggles facing nonprofit groups and hospitals that care for the elderly and disabled: a history of state cuts, overtaxed workers and concerns about access for the needy.
“We’ve taken the hits, we’ve taken the cuts, but we can’t take much more,” said Lynn Zimmerman, an adult day services provider.
Zimmerman, a member of the Minnesota Adult Day Services Association, said programs that keep the elderly in their homes are cost effective, and urged Dayton to push for a change in the pay structure of adult care specialists.
Dayton, GOP cuts
Dayton’s budget calls for a $5.8 million reduction over the next budget cycle in the Elderly Waiver program, a $300 million state initiative that provides in-home care to people 65 and older.
In fiscal year 2010, the program served more than 26,000 elderly people at a quarter of the cost of care in nursing homes, according to the Department of Human Services.
The GOP House would reduce funding for the program by $25 million. That’s on top of previous cuts: Mary Jo Thorne, regional director of housing at Augustana Care, said her organization has faced a 20 percent reduction in funding for the program in the past two years.
“I see the real faces of real people,” Dayton said, calling defunding care for seniors “really tragic and really, really wrong.”
The audience urged the governor to stay strong in his opposition to GOP proposals.
Jewel Mayer, a senior St. Paul resident, told Dayton to “fend off those people who got the Robin Hood story backwards,” speaking of Republicans in the Legislature.
Although much of the discussion focused on the GOP budget reductions, some opposition to Dayton’s cuts surfaced as well.
Early on in the discussion, one man stood up and asked, “What’s your solution?” He then stormed out.
Renee Skoglund of Healtheast City Passport said Dayton’s budget would result in a $26 million cut to Healtheast, the equivalent of employing 220 workers.
Dayton, who has hosted at least one roundtable discussion on higher education, said the events are educational and show that there are faces behind proposed cuts.
The governor said he learned about adult day services and lower-cost alternatives to nursing home care, but didn’t say whether the discussion would affect policy decisions.
The discussions also serve another purpose: They allow Dayton to use his “bully pulpit” to influence public opinion in favor of his income tax plan by showing how an “all cuts” GOP budget would harm Minnesotans.
Republican leaders met with Dayton Tuesday before the discussion, but the governor couldn’t point to any progress in budget talks that will allow legislative session to end by its May 23 deadline.
Republicans leaders, who have been using private consultants to look for savings, have yet to indicate whether they’ll meet with fiscal analysts from Minnesota Management and Budget.
Democrats have criticized the GOP for using “funny money” to cut the state’s budget deficit. For example, Dayton said Republicans need to “face reality” that the Obama administration won’t grant a Medicaid waiver, a move Republicans believe could save the state $300 million.