State budget surplus a good sign for 5% Campaign

MARSHALL – Good news for the state of Minnesota’s bank account means potential good news for groups who provide services for the elderly and disabled.

The most recent state budget forecast, released Thursday, projects a more than $1 billion budget surplus. A chunk of that is reserved to pay back Minnesota schools from past budget shifts, leaving roughly $825 million for lawmakers to play with during the 2014 session.

It’s not known how that money will be allocated, but organizers and supporters of the grassroots 5% Campaign are hopeful the surplus will open the doors for a rare increase in funding for those who work with the disability community and older adults. The 5% Campaign is a nonpartisan coalition of Minnesotans working to secure a 5 percent rate increase for Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) in 2014.

“After the payback to schools, the surplus is expected to be about $825 million, and quite frankly, that exceeds anything we expected,” said Steve Larson, senior policy director for The Arc of Minnesota and co-chairman of the 5% Campaign. “It gives us the opportunity to be successful with the 5% Campaign during the 2014 legislative session.”

Larson said the group is asking for $86 million for FY2015, which begins July 1. That $86 million will be matched by federal dollars and will go toward caregivers for seniors and the disabled. It doesn’t, however, have a funding stream attached to it, meaning legislators will have to go line by line through the next budget to figure out where to find the needed revenue for the campaign. That task could potentially become easier with the projected surplus.

“We’re pretty excited to hear the surplus is expected to be that large,” Larson said. “We’ll continue to work with legislators to make sure that this is one of their top priorities next year.”

During the 2013-2014 budget debate, nearly $3 billion in taxes and fees was raised on taxpayers, according to District 22A Republican Rep. Joe Schomacker, but people with disabilities and older adults didn’t see those tax hikes go to pay their caregivers more. Schomacker said it’s time those who take care of the most vulnerable Minnesotans receive a pay raise.

“A 5 percent increase to those who care for the disabled and the elderly will show that we value their commitment to providing quality care for those who need it the most,” said Schomacker, chief author for a legislative long-term care reform package in the last session. “With the number of people receiving disability services expected to increase to roughly 83,000 in 2017, we need to be doing all we can to keep our caregivers in this crucial profession.”

Schomacker said The 5% Campaign is committed to making life in the community the first and best option for people with disabilities and older Minnesotans, as well as their families, workers and our state.

“With the number of people receiving disability services expected to increase to roughly 83,000 in 2017, we need to be doing all we can to keep our caregivers in this crucial profession,” he said.

Laurie Driessen is the quality assurance specialist for REM Southwest and REM South Central Services, Inc. But she’s also the mother of a disabled person. Her 33-year-old son, Jeremy, suffers from cerebral palsy and is in need of extensive daily care and attention, so for Driessen, the 5% Campaign carries with it a special kind of significance.

“He has numerous medical needs,” Driessen said of her son. “He needs oxygen, he has a feeding tube, so the staff has to suction him, he has a colostomy bag, he has a seizure disorder; we have people who are dedicated earning nine dollars an hour who deserve an increase. They continue doing work that most people would rather not do, and it’s tough work. But they come in every day, they come in snowstorms, on weekends, holidays, and give us 100 percent. It’s time we start saying ‘thank you.'”

REM has local offices in Canby and Marshall and serves Yellow Medicine, Lac qui Parle, Chippewa, Rock, Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Pipestone, Jackson, Nobles, Cottonwood, Swift, Renville and Redwood counties.

Jeff Anderson, a team lead at Habilitative Services, Inc. in Marshall, said a wage increase is long overdue and even more crucial today because of the new federal law – the Affordable Care Act – that requires all Americans to have health insurance.

“The really sad part of it is it’s so difficult to find quality employees; our turnover rate is just huge, and the majority of people who work for us are working two or three jobs, or going to school,” Anderson said. “People aren’t making it on these wages. And now being required to have insurance makes it tougher on them.”

Habilitative Services was founded in 1985 and provides outcome-based services in an effort to enhance an individual’s quality of life. Anderson said employees at HSI are doing more than just working a job and collecting a paycheck. The nature of their job, he said, involves building important relationships with their clients, which makes avoiding turnover that much more critical.

“The relationship piece is a huge piece,” he said. “These (clients) are people who can’t function on their own, that’s why we’re here – getting them their medications, helping with laundry, preparing meals, grocery shopping, getting them to Special Olympic practice. These are things most people aren’t even aware of. But if they can go somewhere else and get better wages, they have to. When you don’t have that continuity of care, you lose the quality of care.”

If the rate increase goes through during the next budget session, it would be the third in about 10 years, Larson said. The Legislature approved an increase of 1 percent last year, which was set to kick in in June 2014.

“We worked so hard last year to try and get a wage increase for people who work with my son and other people who work in the field and were pretty disappointed when we walked away with a 1 percent increase,” Driessen said. “That’s nothing. We just can’t keep getting cuts. There are so many people who need these services. We’re really at crisis level.”