Minnesota House passes health and human services budget

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 23, 2013 - 10:05 AM

The legislation includes $150 million in cuts – and mandatory drug tests for lawmakers.

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The Minnesota House signed off on a scaled-back budget for the state’s Health and Human Services programs late Monday night — and on mandatory drug tests for themselves.

The omnibus budget bill passed the House by a vote of 70 to 64, after hours of debate over the proposed $11.2 billion budget for programs that serve Minnesota’s poorest, sickest and oldest citizens.

That budget reduces the HHS budget by $150 million over the next two years, to the dismay of advocates and of House Republicans who argued that the cuts could fall hardest on rural hospitals and nursing homes.

“We’ve honored our commitment to protect the vulnerable, while recognizing that we need to be thoughtful,” said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, however, blasted the DFL for pushing a budget that includes more than $2 billion in proposed tax increases and extra funding for almost everything but the health and human services budget.

“Democrats have put money toward bee habitats, snow-making equipment and tree museums,” Daudt said. “In fact, Democrats are handing out more money to every single budget area except this one.”

The floor of the House was piled high with stacks of paper, both copies of the massive bill itself and of the 87 amendments members had filed to it. Among those was a proposal by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who proposed mandatory drug tests for welfare recipients in Minnesota.

“You should be ashamed” for politicizing a program meant to help the state’s poorest children and their families, Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, told Drazkowski during the late-night debate. She then countered with an amendment to his amendment — calling for mandatory drug tests for state lawmakers too. Those who failed the test wouldn’t get their paycheck from the taxpayers.

The proposal was a huge hit with both sides of the aisle.

“Bring on the cup!” said Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, joining an overwhelming majority of members who voted for drug tests all around.

It remains to be seen whether the drug testing provisions survive conference committee with the Senate, which has not yet taken up the HHS omnibus. Other amendments to the House bill included a provision that would require Minnesota to license and inspect abortion clinics.

Democrats argued that the budget would save the state millions of dollars without cutting services to vulnerable populations. The bill also included the first pay increase for nursing-home and long-term caregivers in almost five years.

DFL leaders argued that the cuts were necessary to keep the HHS budget from ballooning.

No fan of cuts

“It is the fastest-growing part of our budget, and we need to get people’s attention and make sure they understand that we have to do something about health care spending,” said House HHS Finance Chairman Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth. No fan of the cuts his committee was forced to make, Huntley initially threatened to resign his chairmanship, but eventually reconciled himself to the new budget targets. “I had a target, I didn’t like the target, but we met it,” he said.

Most of the savings in the bill would come from higher surcharges to hospitals and health plans. While many hospitals would get the money, and more, back from increased federal payments, Republicans from rural districts said the cuts would fall disproportionately on their providers, who serve fewer Medicaid patients and would get less money back from Washington.

“We have a crisis out there in greater Minnesota,” said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, joining other rural House and Senate members at a joint news conference Monday. The DFL budget, she said, includes more than $2 billion in tax increases, “yet we automatically assume that long-term care is going to be shortchanged. … These are our vulnerable, these are our seniors. These are jobs, very good jobs, out in greater Minnesota.”

Huntley agreed that the federal funds will not be enough to cover the increased surcharges at all hospitals, including some in his own district.

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