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Legislative Report District 13: Human services budget covers a plethora of needs

The report this week was going to include a review of the Human Services budget, since there are many people interested in that. Senator John Andrist, whose career has been as a newspaperman in Crosby, wrote such an excellent column for his local newspaper that I have asked him if I could share it with you. The following is Senator Andrist's column:

"Human Services. What is it?

Back in the great depression they called it aid to the poor. After subsequently changing the name to "welfare," that term developed an unfriendly onus, viewed as tax dollars being spent on people too lazy to work. So human services evolved.

As it has grown and grown, however, human services has become so much more than welfare as we once knew it.

It's nursing home care for grandma, at least those grandmas without the resources to pay $4000 to $6000 a month or more for nursing home care in their time of decline. It's child support services, a system designed to make certain that children are not economically abandoned, when their parents call it quits.

It's mental health assistance, a growing part of which is substance abuse. Why should we spend money to provide health care for broken drug addicts with suicidal and other mental health issues? Because we are a society that doesn't abandon those who probably deserve abandonment, and because when they show up at the emergency rooms of our hospitals, the meter really starts to spin, and we won't permit hospitals to turn away those in need of emergency care.

It's vocational rehabilitation, helping stricken people to get their lives back in order.

It's services to the developmentally disabled, people unlucky enough to be born with a mental system insufficient to meet the challenges of providing for their own needs. In North Dakota it's also a system of eight regional human service centers, established to focus on human service needs specific to their area of the state.

All of it adds up to the state's largest single budget, about $2.6 billion. That's more than we spent in all of North Dakota government, when I began work in the legislature 18 years ago.

About 40 percent of it ($925 million) is state dollars. A billion and a half is federal dollars, and that percentage is declining, of course, because the federal government is broken. Indeed, the budget includes $171 million just to cover the reduction in our federal share of Medicaid assistance, which is the driver for nursing homes and many other medical services.

Frankly, you might be surprised to know that the legislative leaders who really worked this budget, both in the House and Senate, are among the most fiscally conservative in our lot. You might also be surprised to know how many worthwhile human services initiatives we turned down, and how much pleading we listened to from those compassionate liberals among us who care deeply about the least of us.

It is easy to complain about this budget, not only its enormous size, but its growth as well - until you start looking at the individual components. And the truth is we could spend a half billion more, I suppose. Even if we did we would be faced with a litany of new "needs" when we return to Bismarck two years from now.

So we do our best to prioritize. But no matter how fiscally conservative we try to be, the human services budget grows.

Your District 13 legislators will provide reports in the weeks ahead on the results of the legislative session. Please contact us with your comments and concerns: Senator Judy Lee, 282-6512,; Rep. Kim Koppelman, 282-9267,; Rep. Alon Wieland, 282-9470,