Just hours after it recessed until April 14 or whenever, the Minnesota State Legislature was closed up tight Tuesday.
Had the session not abruptly ended due to COVID-19, the day would have been packed with committee meetings and the rotunda and halls filled with citizen-lobbyists as well as the compensated kind. Instead, it was mostly empty.
In announcing what was termed a hiatus, legislative leaders insisted that they were still working and still open to constituents. But it will be mostly by phone, by email and by text. In-person meetings are by appointment only.
The resolution adopted in the early morning Tuesday said the Legislature would reconvene April 14, the day it normally would have returned from its Easter/Passover break. What is different this year is that the break is almost four weeks instead of one.
The Legislature will be on-call, meaning House and Senate leaders can agree to call back members if something comes up that needs passage.
And as became apparent Tuesday morning, what was previously deemed an adequate appropriation for state and local health departments just one week ago has become inadequate. The $21 million infusion signed March 10 has been followed up by a $50 million appropriation Tuesday.
That same bill created a health care grant fund of $150 million: money that can be tapped by hospitals, clinics, long-term care centers, pharmacies and ambulance services to pay for expenditures such as the expansion of hospital space or the purchase of ventilators and protective gear. It can also go for staff overtime and training, though institutions that receive money must care for the uninsured without charge and must charge in-network fees even to out-of-network insureds.
The bill passed unanimously. Gov. Tim Walz signed it in private Tuesday afternoon, forgoing the signing ceremony that would be typical for a bill of this magnitude.
Monday evening, Walz’s powers under his declaration of emergency were extended by a little-known body called the executive council, made up of Walz and the other four statewide elected officials.
Under state law, the council must approve the declaration within five days. Once done — Monday’s vote was unanimous — Walz’s powers extend for another 30 days, subject to being rescinded by the Legislature. The council also approved the five executive orders Walz has signed, including the closure of schools and public gathering places such as bars and restaurants.
Lawmakers might work one-on-one on issues that remain unresolved, though no formal hearings are scheduled. Tuesday’s calendar was rife with cancellations and few legislators were present. Members also are realizing that many of the issues that had dominated the first month of the 2020 session will not be taken up by either house when they return. Leaders have limited the agenda to COVID-19 bills; “mission-critical” measures such as the bonding bill and supplemental budget; and bills with broad agreement. Whether the latter includes the emergency insulin measure that passed the Senate unanimously last week is undetermined.
That means issues such as gun safety, though the gun safety organization Minnesota Moms Demand Action is still working, changing an in-person lobby day set for Wednesday to a virtual action day featuring phone calls and emails to legislators and a Twitter gathering among activists.
The visitors office was open but tours have been called off for now. The state History Center is closed until March 30, as are all Minnesota Historical Society sites across the state. On Tuesday, the sole tourists at the Capitol were a mother and her young son, who mostly had the place to themselves.