Don’t look to disability programs to balance the state budget


With the state facing a projected $935 million deficit in the budget for the rest of the 2008-2009 biennium, disability advocates suspected that human services – and disability supports in particular – would once again be a target for budget cuts. Our suspicions were confirmed when the Governor’s supplemental budget called for $500 million in cuts and budget transfers from health and human services.

We wanted to avoid a repeat of 2003, when state officials began a series of budget cuts, fund transfers, and fee increases that have negatively affected people with disabilities and their families – by an amount that now totals a staggering $500 million! The Arc of Minnesota and several of its allies (including partner organizations, self-advocates, family members, and care providers) got together in St. Paul for Disability Day at the Capitol on March 12th. They met with state legislators that day and said, “Don’t Balance the Budget on the Back of People with Disabilities!” and “Invest in People With Disabilities: Create a Taxpayer!”

House and Senate Health and Human Services Committees are now responding to the Governor’s budget proposals. We know that some of our messages from March 12th got through, because there was some good news for people with disabilities in their proposals:

* The committees in both houses preserve the two percent COLA approved by the Legislature last year to go to direct care staff this year. The House will let the COLA go into effect as scheduled on July 1, 2008. The Senate delays the COLA until Oct. 1, 2008.

* Unlike the Governor’s budget, the House committee does not require counties to pay the state back for extra funds they needed to spend on services that help keep persons with disabilities living and participating in their communities.

* The House and Senate committees support funding to help make it easier for some people with disabilities to access housing in the community, including those who may be waiting for community-based housing.

All is not well, however. While some disability funding was protected, other monies were cut:

* Money for 2009 for Self Advocates Minnesota (SAM) was eliminated from the Senate bill. This funding supports groups around the state who are helping persons with disabilities find their voice and develop the skills needed to speak up for themselves and stand up for their rights. Chapters affiliated with The Arc who sponsor many of these groups can testify to the difference they make to self-advocates.

* Both the House and Senate cap growth on services that keep people with disabilities out of more expensive nursing homes and let persons with brain injury live in the community and be more independent.

* The Senate version cuts rates to some health care providers by three percent, even though these rates have not been increased for 20 years. This may make it more likely that medical professionals will refuse to take on people who use Medical Assistance for their health care, including persons with disabilities.

The “protect this, cut that” technique to fund human services doesn’t work. Ultimately, people with disabilities are still hurt when we don’t adequately fund their supports. They shouldn’t have to worry that their funding is always up in the air whenever we face budget problems. Finding more permanent relief to this worry is even more evident by the fact that the state deficit is projected to continue during the next two-year budget cycle – a hole of at least $1 billion.

Disability supports wouldn’t face regular threats to their funding if state officials didn’t always look for ways to cut them and instead looked for ways to fund them. They created a permanent deficit in funding through income tax rebates and cuts from the late 1990s, 2000, and 2001.

Disability advocates are all for using tax dollars wisely and efficiently, and The Arc of Minnesota has been working to revamp our service system so we get maximum benefit for every dollar spent. But investments in those services do require money. Otherwise, you create situations where about 5,000 Minnesotans currently wait for the supports that will help them become contributing, included, and valued members of our communities. And our job becomes even more difficult with the Governor’s proposed cut in the sales tax this year – a $77 million yearly hit to the budget.

Disability affects people of every political persuasion, so funding disability supports should not be a partisan issue. All of our elected officials need to show greater leadership and political will to raise the revenues needed, in a way that fairly distributes the contributions Minnesotans are asked to make in taxes.

With a more reasoned approach – an approach that sees disability supports as investments in our people and communities – we can give those supports the money they need and people with disabilities the opportunities they deserve.