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Minnesota lawmakers to convene Thursday to pass COVID-19 response bill — after working for a week outside the public eye

By splitting up the conference calls by party, lawmakers were able to avoid triggering rules on open meetings.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, shown during a March 10 press conference.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

In preparation for a one-day session of the Minnesota Legislature, members of the state House from both parties have been holding what are termed “informal” conference calls in working groups that match the Legislature’s existing committee structure.

These meetings, in which DFL members of the working groups meet on their own followed by each group’s Republican members, were held without public notice and without the ability for the public or news media to listen in or take part. By splitting up the telephone gatherings by party, lawmakers were able to avoid triggering House rules on open meetings.

“Because otherwise we would be violating the open meetings law,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler.

The meetings began March 19 and will continue through Wednesday. According to the agendas of those meetings, the issues discussed match what appears to be a COVID-19 omnibus bill that will contain a long list of actions that appropriate funds and empower Gov. Tim Walz to respond to the pandemic.

The session, not yet scheduled, can be convened by agreement of House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, according to the resolution that put the Legislature into hiatus on March 17. They released this statement late Tuesday: “Legislative leaders have agreed to reconvene on Thursday. We are continuing to work closely with the Walz Administration on urgent COVID-19 matters to protect the health and well-being of Minnesotans. We will publicly release details on specific legislation on the House and Senate websites as soon as we can. As we convene, we will do so in accordance with guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health to keep members, staff, and the public safe.”

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“State Representatives are working to craft measures to assist Minnesotans coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and its related disruptions,” Hortman said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “We know that Minnesotans are facing significant medical concerns and financial hardships, and the Minnesota House of Representatives is working hard with the goal of a legislative session on Thursday to pass legislation to safeguard their health and economic well-being.

“The House is working via informal working groups, which mirror the existing committee structure,” she continued. “We are working to create opportunities for the public to engage and offer their feedback.” 

None of those opportunities will be in place in time for the Thursday session, however. Instead, a single bill containing both policy and budget requests by Walz will be presented to lawmakers; amendments will be discouraged and debate will be limited in order to restrict the amount of time members will be together.

‘Not ideal’ for public input or access

When they do meet on Thursday, both the House and Senate are expected to use the social distancing methods it practiced when it recessed on March 14. In effect: spreading out across their chambers and the galleries overlooking each chamber.

The governor is asking for an additional $356 million in funding to address the spread of coronavirus, on top of the $221 million already appropriated by the Legislature before it recessed. Among the requests are $200 million for an emergency fund to allow the state to respond to undetermined costs; $10 million for homeless shelter costs; $5 million for sanitation supplies and equipment for homeless shelters; $30 million for childcare support; $14 million to provide welfare recipients $500 grants under the Family Investment Program; $9 million for food banks and food shelves; and $14 million to pay for motel rooms as a way of isolating people in shelters who test positive for coronavirus or develop COVID-19.

“There is a generally strong belief that the governor is going to be directing us with key items, but there are a number of other things we are working on,” Winkler said. Those items include child care assistance and unemployment insurance expansion. Some of the legislation ratifies actions Walz has already taken via executive orders under his emergency powers.

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The process developed by legislative leaders requires that every item and issue must be agreed to by House and Senate “issue leads,” who would otherwise be known as committee chairs. Then, approval must come from the four caucus leaders —Hortman, Gazelka, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent — and then be signed off by the governor.

The first public look at the bill will be when the Legislature meets in session. That single bill will be voted on sometime Thursday, likely in the evening. (Here are the list of meetings and here are the policy and budget requests likely to appear in the COVID Omnibus bill. And here are Walz’s supplemental budget requests.)

State Rep. Ryan Winkler
State Rep. Ryan Winkler
Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, defended the process while conceding that it was “not ideal” from a public access perspective. “The alternative is for us to be exposing our members and staff to the spread of coronavirus or to not take any action and go home,” he said. “It’s not a perfect situation, far from it. But I think it’s the best of the available alternatives. And it’s legal.”

Winkler said legislators and staff, as well as Walz’s staff and agencies, worked from home and met by conference call.

“A body that normally functions entirely on face-to-face communications with all of these gregarious and extraverted people who learn and decide by talking to each other, and flipping that entirely is a major shift to reengineer the Minnesota House of Representatives and respond to a crisis in a week, Winkler said. 

“The demand to make this more public is correct, and we are not going to do this any longer than we possibly need to. And we are trying to find a way to hold virtual meetings that are open to the public,” though the latter might require a change to House and Senate rules, he said. 

Gazelka has not responded to requests to describe the Senate’s process and its plans for Thursday.