Groups serving poor and disabled worry about budget deal


Though word of the budget compromise between Republicans and Democrats late Thursday calmed many Minnesotans, the people who provide health and human services to the poor, the sick and disabled throughout the state remain anxious.

The specter of past budget proposals calling for dramatic cuts to health care programs serving seniors, the disabled and other vulnerable Minnesotans haunts them.  

Even as they wait while principals hash out budget details, a memo [PDF] from the governor’s office was being forwarded between non-profits today entitled “Getting Minnesota Working Again: Governor Dayton’s Compromise Solution is a $35.4 billion budget that protects Minnesotans from $1.4 Billion in GOP cuts.”

The memo covers budget categories ranging from K-12 education, to public safety to health and human services. Still, lawmakers and the administration are negotiating with some hearing an agreement is due this evening.

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Under health and human services, the memo says the compromise “protects”

  • against $556 million in GOP cuts,
  • 140,000 Minnesotans from losing health care,
  • against long term care cuts that would have forced 1,500 disabled and elderly out of community-based services into nursing homes,
  • against “drastic reduction in medical education and research funding,”
  • against cuts to mental health funding,
  • against a 50 percent cut to family planning programs, and
  • “substantial” funding for Department of Health Statewide Health Improvement Programs.

Still, confusion remains, says Brian Rusche, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition and one of those receiving the memo from a senate staffer.

“I think that’s the deal” Dayton and GOP leaders Amy Koch and Kurt Zellers worked out Thursday, Rusche says. Still, “it’s a deal at the global level, but there are so many details [to be worked out], I worry.”

Right: Gov. Mark Dayton (Photo: MinnPost/Terry Gydesen)

Confirming that the memo came from Governor Mark Dayton’s office. Spokesperson Katharine Tinucci says: “This is the tentative agreement they made yesterday.”

Dayton has agreed to some “very serious and severe cuts” in the health and human services area, says Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL Duluth, after a day spent discussing the budget compromise with Democrats and the Governor’s staff.  But Huntley praised Dayton for working to keep 140,000 very sick and poor people from losing their health care.

“I think the governor cut the best deal he could get. It was clear the Republicans weren’t going to change. We could sit here ‘til October and nothing would be very different than it is now,’’ Huntley says.

Huntley, DFL lead on the health and human services finance committee and former chair of that committee, said the governor spent the day negotiating with Republicans, with no other Democrats present.        

He said Dayton’s health and human services budget originally carried about $600 million in cuts and then $800 million. The current agreement tallies up to about $1 billion in reductions.

Clearly, Huntley disdains the Republican position. “I’m a tax and spend liberal. Republicans are borrow and spend,’’ he says, referring to provisions for shifting costs to school districts and borrowing against tobacco money.

Negotiating continues, and others also worry about details.

“We are very worried. We’re worried that we have a budget deal where the wealthiest Minnesotans are not asked to make any contribution to help solve this deficit and that the poorest therefore are at risk,” says Deborah Schlick, executive director of the Affirmative Options Coalition, a group of nonprofits banded together to forward anti-poverty and welfare-to-work policies.

Additionally, any cuts come on top of other reductions in health and human services over the years, says Minnesota Budget Project’s Christina Wessel. Such cuts affect people’s quality of life, their health and survival, and cutting child-care prevents parents from going to work, says the deputy director of the project that is an initiative of the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits.

Some take as a good sign the following passage in Dayton’s letter [PDF] to Koch and Zellers Thursday: “… [T]his proposal bridges the remaining $1.4 billion gap between us without any more drastic cuts in essential services to the people of Minnesota. It thus achieves my principal objective throughout these negotiations, which has been finding the revenues necessary to prevent the severe reduction in, or even the elimination of, the assistance upon which many Minnesotans’ lives depend.”

“We’re just waiting to see what comes out of the whole process,” says Pamela Hoopes, legal director of the Minnesota Disability Law Center, at the same time lamenting “fairly drastic” cuts passed last year with regard to changing eligibility criteria that now mean some seniors and persons with disabilities cannot receive help.

Many organizations were sending out “action alerts” urging their supporters to call the governor’s office asking for maintenance of General Assistance and the Minnesota Family Investment Program.

A postscript: Rusche says he’s heard “third hand” there may be some federal money found to cover some of the state’s health and human services costs. Plans are to have details of the budget agreement hammered out by 10 p.m. tonight.