House and Senate DFLers are eyeing Minnesota’s health and human services budget and sharpening their knives.
“It’s going to swallow up our entire budget,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, who this week proposed cutting $150 million from the budget, shrinking the governor’s proposed $11.3 billion budget for health and human services to $11.2 billion. “It’s the part of the budget that’s growing too quickly to keep up with the revenues that are coming in.”
The massive health and human services budget serves some of the sickest, poorest and oldest Minnesotans and the agencies, hospitals and nursing homes that care for them. For advocates, the only thing that stung more than the DFL’s proposed cuts was that the House and Senate proposed budget increases for almost every other agency.
“It’s a kick in the teeth of people who work in nursing homes and long-term care,” said Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, furious that his caucus is proposing to offset the cuts by raising surcharges on those agencies.
After years of belt-tightening and budget cuts, no one expected more reductions from the new DFL majority in the Legislature, said Republican Jim Abeler, past chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee. It came as a particular surprise after DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget called for a $170 million increase in the health and human services spending.
“They saw the light on the horizon as being the sun rising,” Abeler said, referring to health care advocates. “Actually it was a sunset. … They had some hope. No one expected this.”
The health and human services budget has been cut by $1 billion over the past two years, Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said. “It is becoming more difficult to continue with cuts and still hold seniors, people with disabilities and kids harmless,” Jesson said in a statement. “But we are always open to good ideas.”
Thissen, however, said it will be possible to find efficiencies in the health and human services budget. New programs will emphasize preventive health care, which he said will cut down on expensive emergency room visits. A $22 million increase in housing assistance the House has proposed will help the same vulnerable population that DHS serves.
“We are going to do what we can to preserve the safety net,” Thissen said.