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Tim Pugmire, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published March 18 2014

Minnesota advocates for people with disabilities rally for more funding

ST. PAUL - As the Legislature determines how to handle a $1.2 billion budget surplus, advocates for people with disabilities worry that their programs, and caregivers, could be left short.

That possibility prompted advocates and the elderly to head to the state Capitol rotunda on Tuesday for the annual Disability Day rally, where they urged lawmakers to pass a 5 percent increase in funding for the people who take care of the state's most vulnerable residents.

Bruce Nelson, chief executive officer of the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota, told the crowd that a lesser amount just won’t do.

"People receiving services who want quality care, what are they all about this year? Five percent, not four – 5 percent," Nelson said. "Don't let anybody say, 'oh four is good enough.' It's five, five, five."

Nelson and other advocates are concerned that Gov. Mark Dayton's supplemental budget proposal and the budget outline that House DFL leaders released last week fall short of the $83 million that a 5 percent increase would bring this year. Nursing homes received a funding increase last session, and Nelson said it's time for home and community-based services to catch up.

"Folks who provide care to older adults and people with disabilities are typically working two to three jobs," Nelson said. "They're struggling to make ends meet, and frankly they’re leaving for better paying jobs. They'd rather not leave. So what's at stake is the quality of care for people with disabilities and older adults. We have the resources this year. It's time to address this crisis."

Several legislators spoke at the rally, including state Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, the Senate sponsor of legislation for the 5 percent increase.

"It's really in my view just a stopgap measure," Eken said. "We need to go much further. But we need to start here and we need to start now with the 5 percent."

Eken later said he's not sure whether Senate leadership will back the full 5 percent this session. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he supports the increase, but spending targets are still being worked out.

The rally came the same day as a House committee hearing on the proposed increase. Under the House bill, the new money would go to two state programs: Home and Community-Based Services and Intermediate Care Facilities for Developmental Disabilities. It would require that 75 percent be used for employee salaries.

Kim MacInnes, of Bloomington, told lawmakers that she's leaving her job in a developmental disability group home because the demands are too high and the pay is too low.

"It's upsetting because I’ve been with my clients for a long time. I love them, and I know that they trust me and want me to stay," MacInnes said. "But it's gotten too hard."

The House Health and Human Services Finance Committee is working with a budget target of $75 million. All of it would have to go to home health care workers to provide a 4 percent increase.

State Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said he was disturbed and disappointed by the numbers.

"I tell you, if we don't look after these individuals who are serving in these direct service positions, we're going to have a system that will collapse on us," Abeler said.

Abeler urged people who share his concern to contact the governor and House DFL leadership.

Dayton has explained that his proposal, combined with a 1 percent increase passed last year, would provide the 5 percent over the two-year budget cycle.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy of St. Paul offered a similar rationale.

Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she thinks the caregivers she's talked to will accept that approach.

"An addition of 4 percent on top of the 1 percent that was in the budget last time gets us to that goal," Murphy said. "At least from the conversations that I had over the summer and fall that that was an important goal for them, and I think we’re meeting it."

Murphy said she expects members of the Health and Human Services Committee will continuing working on the issue as they shape their larger bill.

"We'll see what happens," she said.