By Don Davis, Forum News Service
and David Montgomery, St. Paul Pioneer Press
Gov. Mark Dayton proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending for education and families Tuesday, leaving some senior citizens’ advocates disappointed with what they said is a too-small increase.
The governor’s $866 million proposed budget increase would freeze tuition at state colleges and universities, start a new universal state-funded prekindergarten program and give more than $160 million to lower-income families. In all, Dayton is proposing to spend nearly 80 percent of the state’s $1.9 billion surplus on “Minnesota children, students and families.”
“I believe in these investments because Minnesota faces real challenges ahead,” Dayton said.
As Dayton updated his two-year, $42.5 billion budget proposal with new budget surplus funds, he added $25 million for nursing homes that complain state money does not allow them to pay enough to keep employees.
Nursing home leaders said the increase Dayton suggests in his revised budget is not enough, but said they are optimistic about a legislative funding increase plan that started at $200 million.
Dayton said he is open to spending more once he sees legislative proposals. He did not know how much his $25 million would raise nursing home workers’ wages, which is the main focus of the money.
“I anticipate the Legislature might very well want to go beyond that, and I’m certainly agreeable to doing so,” Dayton said.
Vice President-Senior Services Carol Raw of Morris-based St. Francis Health Services said the $25 million “is not going to solve our problems,” but added that it is a good sign that Dayton included anything.
President and CEO Mark Anderson of the Knute Nelson care center in Alexandria said he is hopeful the legislative proposal will prevail, but also appreciates that nursing homes are on Dayton’s radar.
While Dayton, a Democrat, concentrated funding on young Minnesotans’ education, Anderson said the reality is that by 2020, there will be more senior citizens than school-age children as 60,000 people turn 65 each year.
Administrator Deb Barnes of Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center in Fairmont said that for years, it seemed no one listened to nursing home needs. That is, until this year, when legislators decided “we need to look at grand reform,” she said.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the Dayton nursing home figure is too small, but predicted the final number will be smaller than what care facilities sought.
“Republicans have been talking for months now about how important it is to reform the way we reimburse nursing homes to make sure that we’re showing these folks the respect they deserve,” the speaker said. “We think that number needs to be probably closer to $160 million over the next biennium.”
A group feeling it didn’t receive enough attention, and is unhappy, represents those who care for the elderly and disabled in their homes. They are behind the 5 Percent Campaign, an effort to boost funding.
“Members of The 5 Percent Campaign are stunned that Gov. Dayton’s supplemental budget includes funding for nursing homes, but not a rate increase for home and community-based services,” said Bruce Nelson of the campaign. “It’s really a matter of fairness. It’s important that caregivers in home and community-based services are treated the same as those in nursing homes.”
About 19,000 American Indian students throughout the state, 93 percent of all Indian students, would benefit from $15 million more that Daytona folded into his budget, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said. The money would be used to improve academic achievement and reduce the dropout rate.
Dayton proposed spending $10 million to build 650 housing units in greater Minnesota communities that have job openings but housing shortages.
While Dayton had already announced his prekindergarten plan and tuition freeze, along with a tax credit for middle-income parents and caregivers, some of his welfare proposals were new.
The governor’s proposing $68 million to increase state assistance for low-income families. That aid that hasn’t been changed since 1986, meaning its value has plummeted due to inflation. A bill from DFL Sen. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis and Republican Rep. Mary Franson of Alexandria would implement a similar increase.
Dayton also wants to spend $83 million to expand eligibility for the Working Family Tax Credit, given to lower-income families, along with $11 million more to help parents buy school supplies and $50 million on child protection.
Leaders of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems praised the governor’s budget for funding tuition freezes, while the teachers union Education Minnesota also backed it.
This is just the opening salvo in budget negotiations that are likely to last until May. A final state budget needs to be approved by Dayton, the Republican-run House and the DFL-controlled Senate.
Legislative budget plans are due out next week.
While Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that he wants to raise state aid to local governments, Dayton did not include any in his Tuesday budget. Bakk said Monday that he expects some increase by the time lawmakers go home in May.
“By failing to support an increase in Local Government Aid, the message Governor Dayton sent to families and businesses in greater Minnesota is that even with a $1.9 billion dollar surplus the state doesn’t have the commitment, resources or will to invest in your community,” said Ely City Council member Heidi Omerza, Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities president.
Nursing home leaders have been regular Capitol visitors this year as they try to get more money so they can pay staffs higher wages. They have told legislators that workers often go to higher-paying jobs at hospitals, or even fast-food places. Wages are determined by how much money the state provides.
“I’m trying to be optimistic,” said Raw, whose Morris employer owns a dozen nursing homes around the state from Thief River Falls to Duluth to Renville. “I am feeling better than I have in probably the last 10 or 15 years.”
The $200 million in the initial legislation was what nursing homes need to meet their expenses, Raw said. “We need something that is sustainable.”
“We have critical, critical issues in our nursing facilities,” she added. “We are so far behind that we are desperate for whatever we can get.”
In Alexandria, Anderson said that with a rapidly increasing number of aging Minnesotans, nursing home funding reform is needed.
“Something needs to be done … to ensure that we are able to find sustainable funding sources for the care centers,” Anderson said.
Whatever is done, he added, requires the state to invest more money.
Doug Belden of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.