Video: “People With Disabilities Shouldn’t Be Seen as a Means of Economic Development”

Senator Nicole Poolman (R-Bismarck) speaks in favor of her resolution to study the Life Skills and Transition Center in Grafton, ND.

The floor debate today in the state Senate over  was probably one of the most frustrating spectacles I’ve seen to date in the 2017 legislative session.

Governor Doug Burgum campaigned on a platform of reinventing state government. Making it more efficient. Finding a way for public servants to do more with less. What the Senate showed today is that even though that platform won Burgum a landslide victory, there is little appetite for it in the Legislature.

Had it passed the resolution, introduced by Senator Nicole Poolman (R-Bismarck), would have initiated a study into the efficacy of the state operating the Life Skills and Transition Center in Grafton, North Dakota.

I wrote about this place last week. It’s been around for over a century, and is one of 15 public institutions mandated in our state constitution. It costs the taxpayers roughly $60 million per year, and employs 327 people, yet services just 87 residents (76 on-campus and 11 in the Grafton community).

“People with disabilities shouldn’t be seen as a means of economic development,” Senator Poolman said during the floor debate.

The facility was founded back when people with severe mental disabilities were routinely institutionalized, but since then lawsuits litigated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court have created a legal expectation that those citizens not be institutionalized. The idea is that their interests are better served by community-based care.

So the Center in Grafton is a bit of an anachronism, though it’s been reformed to embrace that community approach to care (the residents there today live in something akin to apartments rather than the dormitories of the past).

What Senator Poolman’s resolution would have done is study the Center and determine whether the state has the resources to spread the services provided in Grafton to other parts of the state so that the people in need of them might be able to stay closer to their home communities. Part of that study, per the resolution, would have looked into what it would take to close down the Grafton facility.

Which was the political bugaboo. The fly in the ointment which caused this study resolution to get over 25 minutes of floor debate today.

You see, there are those 327 jobs. That’s a big economic benefit to the Grafton area, which is why most of the push back against the resolution came from lawmakers who represent that northeast corner of the state. People like Senator Tom Campbell (R-Grafton), Curt Kreun (R-Grand Forks), and Janne Myrdal (R-District 10).

Which is frustrating. The Senate today voted against even studying the possibility that there might be a better way to serve our state’s mental disabled citizens than through a massive facility operated on the extreme east side of the state, and they did so because of rank parochialism.

“People with disabilities shouldn’t be seen as a means of economic development,” Senator Poolman said during the floor debate.

She’s right.

I don’t see how we’re every going to succeed in making state government more efficient if we lack the political will to take some of our largest and most costly institutions out of the state constitution so that our leaders can get some flexibility when it comes to providing those services.

The resolution failed on an unrecorded vote.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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