Wheelchairs and chanting protesters crowded the Minnesota Legislature to rail against a planned $150 million cut in the state's Health and Human Services budget.
“I’m glad they’re here,” said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, as protesters chanted "No more cuts! No more cuts!" outside the House and Senate chambers Tuesday afternoon. "The more heat we can put on the leadership and the governor, the better off these folks will be.”
The Health and Human Services budget was cut by more than a billion dollars over the past two years. Many advocates in the disability community hoped that the new Democratic majority in the Legislature would halt the cuts, or possibly even new funding to restore slashed programs or offer caregivers their first raise in five years.
Instead, the House and Senate set budget targets that knock millions more out of the HHS budget even while proposing an extra $2 billion in new tax revenue.
"I nearly went into shock" said Norm Munk, president of the Minnesota Organization for Habitation and Rehabilitation, who said services to the elderly and people with disabilities are already suffering from previous cutbacks.
Caregivers fear the proposed cuts will fall squarely on their backs, despite promises from the Democratic leadership that they will be protected.
Marrie Bottelson, a writer and illustrator who has cerebral palsy and lives in a group home, shared her story with reporters through a 'zine she wrote and illustrated.
"I feel like they are saying 'I don't care about you. You're not worth it,'" said Bottelson, who spoke with the assistance of a computer. "It makes me so mad. I live, work adn contribute to the well-being of my community too. I am not 'the wheelchair' or 'that poor disabled girl.'"
House Speaker Paul Thissen insisted that it is possible to cut the massive HHS budget without cutting services to the most vulnerable people in the state. The cuts represent less than 1 percent of the HHS budget, he said, and lawmakers are still working out where they will find "reforms and efficiencies" in the network of health and human services programs.
"Our goal, and I think we can accomplish it, is to continue to put pressure on the growth in the Health and Human Services budget without undermining the social safety net," he said Tuesday. "We want to make sure the money we have is actually going to provide them services and not to other places."
But some members of the DFL caucus, like Huntley, remain unhappy with the size and timing of the cuts.
“I know we have a budget problem," Huntley said. "But we should have had a much better target than we did.”