On Thursday, January 13th the Minnesota Council on Disability (MCD) hosted our annual Legislative Forum with remarks from several state leaders, including Governor Tim Walz and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan. The theme of this year’s forum was “Capacity Building” and increasing disability representation in government. The event featured two bi-partisan legislative panels and a public comment section.
Executive David Dively and Council Chair Nikki Villavicencio opened the forum. Both highlighted how COVID-19 brought challenges and opportunities to the disability community.
Governor Walz acknowledged these challenges, noting “[T]he issues that we had pre-COVID were exacerbated by the COVID situation, making it much more difficult.”
He pivoted to employment and committed to making the state a model employer for Minnesotans with disabilities. Both Walz and former Governor Mark Dayton issued executive orders mandating the state hire more employees with disabilities. As a result, that number grew 5%. But, Walz is not satisfied with that number. “[T]hat is unacceptable still. We can do better. I am glad we’re making progress, but I want to be very careful. We cannot rest on our laurels”. He committed to signing HF2017 and SF1570 if they pass this legislative session. The bills contain measures to improve the state’s hiring and retention of employees with disabilities.
The Governor ended his comments with a commitment to the accessibility and affordability of health care for Minnesotans with disabilities.
Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan noted that “as we enter into 2022, we will mark the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in order to make those lasting and effective changes, it is important to have Minnesotans with disabilities at policymaking tables and serving in leadership positions within state agencies.”
The Lt. Governor stressed how important was to have an agency like MCD during a time of crisis. She also credited MCD’s role in bringing more people with disabilities into state government and affirmed the need to increase that number.
When more people with disabilities aren’t involved in state government they are often overlooked in policy. The “Connect 700 [hiring program] can help ensure that people with disabilities are not only at the table but are also at the head of the table, and that is our role and our goal. So I agree that we must make state government a good place for all Minnesotans of all backgrounds including those living with disabilities.”
MCD Public Policy Director, Trevor Turner followed with highlights of MCD’s 2022 Public Policy Agenda (PDF). This year, MCD is asking for a significant budget increase to hire staff and develop programming. Our statutory responsibilities are extensive, but we currently cannot meet those responsibilities.
Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman opened the first legislative panel. She listed several disability-related accomplishments from the 2021 legislative session, such as the PCA rate increase, Phase 2 of Waiver Reimagine, and more. She then looked towards the 2022 session, the projected $7.7 billion surplus, and a possible budget. “We all know that budgets are moral documents. It’s not about numbers on a sheet of paper. It’s about people’s lives and what we can do to impact people’s lives…as we try to make the best decisions at the state capitol to serve the people of Minnesota”.
The House Legislative panel included Rep. Liz Reyer, Rep. Tony Albright, and Rep. Jennifer Schultz.
Representative Schultz, chair of the House Human Services committee, on the surplus: “I definitely want to make sure that we invest where there are unmet needs. Some of my colleagues would like to see that returned in a tax cut. I know that we have bigger investments to make that will have a bigger impact on the lives of people of Minnesota and I hope that my colleagues will join me in prioritizing those needs and invest making those key investments that will help people who have been negatively impacted during COVID and who have struggled even prior to COVID”.
When asked, Representative Albright said he would support MCD’s budget increase. He stressed, “I would like to see the…profit and loss in terms of what you’re going to do with it,” emphasizing the importance of smart, effective government serving the people.
Representative Reyer, chief author of HF2017, on her relationship with MCD: “One of my earliest conversations while still a candidate was with Executive Director David Dively. And then as a representative, I’ve had the honor of carrying legislation to support legal protections for workers with disabilities last session. We passed a bill that explicitly included an interactive process as part of making reasonable accommodations within the Minnesota Human Rights Act.”
Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller opened the Senate panel with advice for disability advocates confronting a historic budget surplus. “I would encourage you to bring the stakeholders together, bring legislators on both sides of the aisle together and sit around a table or get on a Zoom and just try to figure out what the best path forward is.”
The Senate panel consisted of five senators, Senator Abeler, Senator, Hoffman, Senator Draheim, Senator Bigham, and Senator Nelson.
Senator Abeler, a strong disability champion, focused on the workforce shortages among Personal Care Assistants (PCAs) and group homes, “The workforce needs in the in the disability community group homes and people with special needs is grievous and the system’s about to collapse”. MCD should have more authority to oversee and investigate these workforce shortages, the senator said.
Senator Hoffman highlighted the importance of an agency like MCD. We are needed to train and help enforce reasonable accommodations in the workplace and to advise state agencies on disability policy.
Senator Draheim also signaled his interest in helping pass SF1570. He also noted other legislative priorities affecting the disability community including, rural broadband access and access to mental health care.
On workforce shortages, Senator Bigham stressed the importance of bipartisanship and collaboration. “I look forward to signing on to Senator Abeler’s bills to make things more efficient [in the workforce shortage]. Let’s get it done!”.
Senator Nelson, ending the panel on a positive note. She celebrated advances in medical technology, the fast development of the COVID vaccine, and empowered disability advocates. ”COVID has stressed us greatly and it will continue to, I’m sure, for some time. But we also live in a time where we have miracles, modern miracles of medicine like vaccines, therapies, things that didn’t even [exist] before COVID.”
“We also have all the innovations that I think provide every Minnesotan with great workforce accommodations and it’s critical for our workforce that we make sure those accommodations are available for every Minnesotan.”
The Legislative Forum concluded with testimonies from members of the public. Topics included:
- guardianship reform,
- the right to marry and still keep disability benefits,
- medical care access,
- special education, accessibility for neurodivergent Minnesotans,
- home care workers,
- disability and COVID policies,
- supporting disability legislation, and
- disability law.
We will post transcripts of the testimonies soon.
MCD looks ahead to the 2022 Legislative Session. Encouraged by the supportive words of our elected officials, we will work to turn those words into action. We are excited about our legislative agenda and determined to see it pass this session.