As lawmakers dole out record surplus, many say they need more

Published 1:51 pm Friday, March 31, 2023

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By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

Hundreds of advocates for disabilities services packed the rotunda of the Minnesota Capitol Tuesday and yelled out their message to lawmakers: “Invest in us.”

The message is one that rang clear in committee hearings and Capitol events this week as dozens of interest groups and millions of Minnesotans got a clearer view of how state lawmakers planned to spend more than $70 billion over the next two years.

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With a historic $17.5 billion budget surplus and DFL control over the trifecta – the governor’s office, Senate and House – Democratic leaders last week agreed to a budget framework. And this week, budget committees advanced a set of spending bills that cover all areas of state government.

Typically these steps come later in the legislative session, giving groups little time to press lawmakers for changes. But with eight weeks left, organizations that feel short-changed have come to the Capitol with a common refrain: thanks, but we need more.

Coming out of the pandemic, nursing homes, disability service providers, schools, food shelves, business owners and many others have been asking lawmakers for money. And even before taking over the reins at the Capitol, DFL leaders said they were preparing to let some people down.

While they had a chance to dole out the largest budget surplus in state history, House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she knew that that wouldn’t please everyone.

“There’s this balancing where we have to take care of transportation, education and health care,” Hortman said. “And in order to achieve that balance, not everybody got everything that they wanted. But everybody got a significant increase.”

Hortman said the DFL budget targets focus on areas where lawmakers can make a big difference with one-time spending, and in a handful of situations, with ongoing budget boosts. She said they did what they could with the money at hand.

But nursing homes, disability providers and emergency food shelves this week urged leaders to find a way to spend more in areas with the most pressing needs.

During a House Agriculture Committee this week, Rachel Sosnowchik with Second Harvest Heartland, thanked legislators for approving free school meals for Minnesota students and an emergency appropriation for food shelves. But with needs at food shelves hitting twice the rates they experienced during the pandemic and emergency SNAP benefits coming to a close, food assistance groups need more help, she said.

“These investments alone are not enough to end hunger in Minnesota, which remains at a record high due to ongoing consequences of the pandemic, elevated grocery costs and sunsetting federal benefits,” Sosnowchik said.

“We hope that legislative leaders in both parties, as well as the governor’s office, will reconsider this committee’s target and choose to invest more,” she continued.

After seeing no action to boost funding to long-term care facilities last year, Kari Thurlow, president and CEO of Leading Age Minnesota, said that 30 nursing homes are on the brink of closure.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm bell for months,” Thurlow said.

The overall human services budget increase for the next two years is $1.3 billion and only part of that will address long-term care. Thurlow said that the industry had requested $1 billion in the next budget to help hire and retain workers and keep doors open at dozens of facilities.

“Many of our providers, especially in nursing homes, tell us that they only have a few months left to be able to continue to operate without some sort of legislative action to provide some funding,” she said. “And so it is, if I can just be very, very honest. It is sad that it feels like our pleas have fallen on deaf ears.”

Sen. Gary Dahms, a Redwood Falls Republican, echoed that concern in a hearing about letting employees accumulate earned sick and safe time.

“Take a look at where you’ve spent your money and decide where your priorities are. I think you have left a message of where your priorities are,” Dahms said. “Our priorities at this point are not rural nursing homes, and we need to do something about that.”

Senate Human Services Committee Chair John Hoffman, a DFLer from Champlin, is set to unveil his budget bill later today. Ahead of the hearing, he said that he wants to see leaders in his party move more money toward long-term care and disabilities service providers.

“The paltry little bit of money that I was given in my target, we’ve stayed within that right now. But there’s a but clause,” he said.

Hoffman and Republican Committee lead Jim Abeler said they plan to ask for $570 million more to boost their targets. They have $1.3 billion in the next two years and $1.5 billion in the two that follow. And even that falls short of the need, they said.

“I’m grateful that human services got the highest amount it’s gotten in years, right? But that’s not enough if you truly want to stabilize the system,” Hoffman continued.

Public schools, housing initiatives, transportation and Minnesotans eligible for tax rebates and credits saw some of the biggest gains in terms of budget target areas. But even in those areas, some advocates said lawmakers need to spend more.

Legislators are set to continue piecing together the budget puzzle over the next several weeks. They have to adjourn on May 22.