A House committee today will take up a bill that aims to fix some of the problems that resulted from the budget deal that ended the state government shutdown last summer.
Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican leaders say the compromise wasn't perfect, especially in the area of health and human services. There's no multi-billion dollar budget being put together at the Capitol this year, but both sides are proposing some fixes. The question is how much money to spend.
Dayton wants to restore $28 million of the $1 billion cut from health and human services last year to settle the budget stalemate. The governor proposes restoring emergency medical assistance for non-citizens who need dialysis or cancer treatments. He says money for a program that helps health care providers pay their residents in training should be restored.
He also wants to reverse a 20 percent wage cut for more than 6,000 personal care assistants caring for relatives.
A wage increase for that group isn't included in the GOP bill, but Steve Larson of the Arc of Minnesota hopes the measure will be part of an overall agreement.
"We're going to provide people with as much evidence as possible as to why this is harmful and puts Minnesotans who are currently living at home at risk of moving into institutions or more expensive placements," Larson said. "We'll continue to make that argument and try to find any other resources to solve this particular issue."
Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson argued Tuesday before a House committee that the additional spending for health and human services is needed.
"The governor sought to address matters which he thought, 'This really can't wait until next year,'" Jesson said. "And our standard was, is there serious, immediate harm that will threaten people or our health care infrastructure?"
Jesson said the governor was not about to try to restore the entire billion dollars cut from last year. "Overall they were decisions that needed to be made," she said.
Today, lawmakers will start comparing what the governor wants to the Republican proposal. Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who oversees the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, said the money Dayton wants to spend is not available without tax increases, which GOP leaders oppose.
"I don't believe that will be anything we can spend. I would love to have [$28 million] to spend, that would solve a lot of my problems," Abeler said. "As it is, I have to find savings within my own bill and do some more management and more reforms."
Abeler's bill spends about $4 million to make what he calls several small fixes, which include restoring funding for an addiction program called Minnesota Teen Challenge, and increasing eligibility for a medical assistance program for people with disabilities. The bill also includes money to help teen parents pay for child care. But Abeler does it all by changing how the Department of Human Services manages corporate foster care facilities so that it would save money.
"It's amazing if you think about how far one or $200,000 can go in solving some targeted matters," Abeler said. "So it's a much more happy-faced bill than what we had last year with all the challenges we were under."
Just like last year, Dayton and DFL leaders will have to negotiate with Republicans on all the details. Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, said it is clear Dayton wants to spend more, but said the conversation should focus on making smart decisions that won't hurt the state's economic situation.
"I don't think his amount is out of line, I don't think what Rep. Abeler is proposing is out of line either," Gottwalt said. "The question is where's the money going to come from; what are the relative impacts of taking money from one place or another. I think some of the reductions we had to do in health and human services were painful but necessary and may be things we could get by in the short term during the budget crisis. Now as things come back we need to look at how to build that back."
Some lawmakers say they don't expect a satisfying conclusion to the debate over health and human services spending this year.
"We like what we see in the governor's bill but we struggle with what's left out of there. We have a sneak peek at Rep. Abeler's bill and it's interesting, but again it's small and doesn't meet the needs there either," said Rep. Nora Slawik, DFL-Maplewood, who is on Abeler's committee. "I think it's back to the drawing board. We'll get these bills through and really look toward next year, which is a budget year."
Dayton and GOP legislative leaders are expected to work out their differences in the coming weeks. There's no obligation to do anything, but given a rosier economic outlook, both sides say they want to do a little to help their most vulnerable constituents.