The Minnesota Legislature convened — quickly and oddly — to pass a COVID-19 response bill Thursday.
With many House members missing — and the Senate for the first time in state history allowing 15 members to vote by phone — the bill was passed and sent to the governor.
House and Senate leaders had negotiated the package of appropriations with Gov. Tim Walz after holding committee meetings by conference call during the previous week. Then, with just enough House members in the Capitol to suspend normal processes and adopt the bill, they did so. The House passed the bill, House File 4531, on a vote of 99-4 after meeting for just over an hour.
“Members, we have a lot of work to be done,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler after the measure was passed. Once the emergency ebbs, the job will be to help the state “recover, revive and move on.”
The Senate then responded with a 67-0 vote in favor of its version of the bill, after debating for nearly three hours. Amendments were offered but withdrawn before votes were taken.
“Together, we’re all trying to defeat the coronavirus and we’re all trying to make sure we don’t kill all the jobs and livelihoods of Minnesotans,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. “That’s a delicate balance.”
The Nisswa-area Republican noted that the virus was a blip on the February revenue forecast and wasn’t a factor in those estimates.
Once the votes were completed, with the only no votes coming from members of the House New Republican Caucus, the bill was signed by House and Senate presiding officers. Then lawmakers returned to their districts and homes.
Walz praised the work. “Last night, we were late into the evening on the phones together and early this morning,” Walz said. “These are a package of initiatives that will help Minnesota be prepared, will ease the pain of the economic squeeze that’s happened to families, and will put resources in the place they need to be in.”
The bill appropriates $330 million and is the third special appropriation since the specter of COVID-19 first appeared. Previously, the Legislature allocated $21 million to the Minnesota Department of Health and $200 million to state hospitals and other health care services. (Here is a link to the bill and a summary of expenditures.)
This latest appropriation provides money for child care centers, homeless services and food banks. It creates new loan funds for small businesses and establishes a new account called the COVID-19 Minnesota Fund. That fund received $200 million to pay for undetermined costs to “protect Minnesota citizens” and “maintain state government operations.” Any expenditure must be approved by a special commission of legislative leaders and expires on May 11, presumably because lawmakers will return by then.
It sets aside $11 million — $1 million each — to the state’s 11 American Indian tribes. Some Republicans objected to the relatively lax reporting for use of that money. Sen. Scott Jensen noted that one of the tribes, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, is one of the wealthiest in the U.S. because of its casino operations.
It also codifies some of the changes Walz made to unemployment insurance, including waiving the one-week waiting period for payments to begin.
The legislation took an unusual and opaque path. House committees held conferences by telephone and even broke into partisan groups so as not to trigger the open meetings law that applies to the Legislature. Some members complained that they didn’t receive a draft until 6 a.m. Thursday and even that changed before the bill was posted, ten minutes before the House took it up.
That also led to confusion. One omission was a special $500 grant to each family on the Family Investment Program, the state’s primary welfare payment. It came out of the bill so late that the lead negotiator on that program thought it was still in when the Senate debated the bill.
“I was told it was there,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, the chair of the Senate Human Services Finance Committee, telling Sen. Jeff Hayden he would cosponsor a bill with him when the Legislature returns.
Also removed was a section to categorize any COVID-19 illness contracted by a first responder as a workplace injury covered by workers compensation and disability coverage. Gazelka said there is a standard to make changes regarding workers compensation only when a business-labor advisory council agrees to those changes, and the council didn’t support this change.
COVID-19 wasn’t just the subject of the bill; it also affected how it was legislated. House and Senate changed seating and voting rules to maintain social distancing. Some members stayed home. Others were seated in galleries and nearby rooms, coming in to vote and speak but then returning to their distant seats. During a Senate discussion over the source of money for a small business loan program, Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake told Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, that it was an issue he would like to pursue.
“As soon as we can be closer than six feet from each other, I’d be happy to talk to you about it,” Pratt said. And Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, added later: “We’ll get through this together. We’ll just do this six feet apart.”
There are some non-financial initiatives in the bill. In addition to codifying some of the sections of Walz executive orders, the measure gives the state authority to move prisoners in order to slow or prevent the spread of COVID-19. “When the remaining term of imprisonment for a convicted person upon commitment is 90 days or less, the commissioner of corrections may contract with a county for placement of the person in a county jail or detention center for the remainder of the person’s term.”
It also allows essential workers who require background checks to be cleared before fingerprint results are available, though other aspects of the background check would still need to be completed.
Before leaving, the House also approved new joint rules that will allow them to hold future emergency sessions with remote attendance and voting, something not allowed under the old rules.
The speed of the crisis made the response unusual. One month ago, the state had a $1.5 billion surplus and a $1.86 billion rainy day fund. Budget writers projected that both will be gone over the course of the next two years thanks to the coronavirus and the state’s response.
“We have to pay for everything, have a balanced budget and do this at a time when we are seeing an extraordinary collapse in tax revenues to the state — at the exact same time that expenditures are rapidly rising as more and more Minnesotans qualify for our assistance programs,” said Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.
He noted that in the last 10 days the use of the unemployment fund has tripled. “As we move forward we will be making exceptionally difficult choices, choices the public will not like, choices that we will not like,” he said. “But as has been demonstrated with this crisis, proactive, strong, preventative leadership on the front side can lead to enormous benefits.”
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said lawmakers must soon begin looking to reduce discretionary spending. “Members, please be aware that money does not grow on trees around here and we need to be very cautious and watch every dollar we spend,” Daudt said. “So we don’t make the problem next year that we will all have to face even greater.”
MinnPost reporter Walker Orenstein contributed to this story.