13 May 2022
It is a nearly 500-page bill that contains dozens of issues related to social and health services in Minnesota. Many issues have bipartisan support. But if there is not an agreement between Senate Republicans and House DFLers on the big issues in what is known as the Health and Human Services omnibus bill, many of those smaller agreements are at risk.
Conference committees have been trying to work out differences but legislative leaders have made clear that not all omnibus bills will be resolved by next Sunday’s adjournment. If agreed-upon sections can’t be pulled out into a mini-omnibus or passed individually before session ends, they will be put off for next year.
One of those seemingly agreed-upon issues is a small change to a housing support program that comes with a relatively small price tag but that could help nearly 4,000 low-income senior residents and people with disabilities, including veterans. The purpose is to help move people out of homeless shelters and to help transition people being released from treatment facilities.
Currently, people who get monthly disability support checks from Social Security or the Veterans Administration must turn over most of that money to the government to gain housing. Just $111 a month can be kept for other needs, a cost-sharing arrangement that causes some to refuse help and others to lose the ability to save enough to leave the program. While the program includes wrap-around services such as utilities, meals and laundry, the recipient does have other expenses that can exhaust the $111 allowance.
The additional cost is about $2 million in the first year and $8 million a year after that. The overall spending in the health and human services omnibus proposals is more than $3 billion by the House DFL and around $1 billion for the Senate GOP.
“This proposal was brought to our attention by the people we serve,” said Lorna Schmidt, the public policy manager for Catholic Charities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. “There are people who are eligible for housing support who are declining it because of the extreme loss of control they have over their income.”
Some turn to shelter or homeless camps, a more-costly and less desired alternative for people living there.
“That puts extra demand on shelters and the longer they are there, the harder it is to get them back on track,” Schmidt said. “This is a reform we see as critical to helping to create more pathways toward housing stability.”
While a lot of the housing is provided by non-profits like Catholic Charities, about 20 percent of tenants rent privately owned housing in communities around Minnesota. Landlords agree to a set rent and counties or non-profits provide other help.
Supporters include the counties, homeless advocates and AARP. What is frustrating, Schmidt said, is that a change that appears to have bipartisan support is at risk because of the end-of-session politics.
“This is a common sense reform where we can east burdens on shelters, promote stable housing and do it while putting more money back in the pockets of some of the lowest-income Minnesotans,” Schmidt said. “If that’s not an all-around win this session then I’m not sure what could be.”
Bipartisan sponsorship doesn’t necessarily mean it will end up in the budget bill. Senate Human Services Reform Committee Chair Jim Abeler (R-Anoka), who co-chairs the conference committee said it isn’t a priority for him this session. Despite a $9.25 billion surplus, 2022 isn’t a budget session and the two-year plan adopted last year was generous for social and health services.
“Some things were fed pretty well. Some area are really lacking even though they got some money, and some areas are just too controversial,” Abeler said. His priority this year is what he terms “critically urgent” needs, especially resolving staffing shortages in long-term care settings.
“We have already greatly exceeded the number of beds that close in any given year,” Abeler said. “There’s no place to put people anymore. That to me is critically urgent.”
“Expanding an important housing option may not rise to the level of keeping nursing homes open so people don’t get taken in their minivan to the E.R. where there’s not a bed for grandma,” Abeler said. “That’s where I’ve attempted to drive the conversation.”
The Anoka Republican said he hopes to have two bills emerge from the House-Senate conference. One is a policy bill that would contain state agency requests and policy changes that don’t have large price tags. The other would come only if the House, Senate and governor can agree on new spending.