The Minnesota House has approved the budget for the state's health and human services programs for the next two yeras.
The HHS budget provides services to some of the oldest, sickest and poorest Minnesotans and it is one of the largest slices of the state budget. The House approved the HHS conference report by a vote of 73-61 late Friday night, after an hour and a half of debate.
Among other things, the new HHS omnibus bill will offer a 5 percent pay increase to nursing home caregivers, expand mental health services for children and reduce spending on the fast-growing Health and Human Services budget by $50 million over the next two years.
"I think it's a good bill," said House Health and Human Services Finance Chairman Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth.
A $6 billion-a-year budget "sounds like a ton of money," Huntley said. "But hardly any of it goes to the welfare moms. Ninety percent of it goes to seniors who are in nursing homes, or who we're trying to keep out of nursing homes, or it goes to people with disabilities. That's where the money is."
Republicans, however, blasted the budget, and particularly the $50 million in cuts. In a year when the Democratic majority was pushing a $2 billion tax bill, they arged that there was no excuse for cutting a budget that serves the needy.
"Over $2 billion in new fees, and instead of providing stable funding for long-term care providers, you want to rely on shifts and gimmicks," said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. "Why aren't you prioritizing nursing homes and the disabled?...We can do better."
Huntley shot back that this was the first time he'd ever been criticized by the GOP for not spending enough money.
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy noted that the bill will give nursing home caregivers their first raise in more than four years.
"It does far more for Minnesota, and Minnesota seniors, than Republican lip service," she said.
The bill also sets out the framework to transition MinnesotaCare into the state's new Basic Health Program. These plans, part of the new Affordable Care Act, are meant ensure that Minnesotans who live on the brink of poverty, but do not qualify for Medicaid, can afford health insurance.
The federal government failed to come up with guidelines for these new programs, so Minnesota simply petitioned the government to use the existing MinnesotaCare program as a template. Which makes Minnesota the first state to get its plan off the ground, Huntley said.
"We've just turned MinnesotaCare into the Basic Health Plan," Huntley said. The federal government will reward the state by covering 100 percent of the cost of the program for the next several years, freeing money up in the HHS budget for other purposes.
But a few months ago,Huntley was furious when the initial budget targets from the House and Senate increased funding for almost every state agency except HHS.
"I was ready to resign, but I got over that in a few weeks," he joked. "We went from a $150 million cut to a $50 million cut, which made life a lot easier, and we also got a lot of money out of the Affordable Care Act, and the Department of Human Services found some ways to make some additional money."
Democratic leaders, alarmed by the ballooning growth of the HHS budget, set out to slow that growth with $150 million in targeted cuts. Those targets sparked protests, particularly from caregivers, who had not seen a pay raise from the state in almost five years.
Republicans also blasted the cuts. During an April floor debate, they condemned the idea of cutting the budget for the sick an elderly in a year when the Democratic majority was pushing tax increases and new revenue sources that would raise $2 billion.
On Thursday, Gov. Mark Dayton and Democratic leaders emerged from closed-door budget negotiations to announce that the $150 million in cuts had been scaled back to $50 million. That gave House and Senate negotiators enough funds to provide a modest pay raise to nursing home caregivers.
The conference report now moves to the Senate.