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The 2020 Minnesota legislative session is becoming all about coronavirus, all the time

If legislation wants attention at the Capitol, it better have something to do with COVID-19.

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz at a press conference on Tuesday: “The safety and security of Minnesota citizens is a top priority in this building and in Minnesota government. There is absolutely no daylight between us on those responsibilities.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

In the midst of a sparsely attended press conference unveiling a House GOP tax-cut package, Rep. Kurt Daudt pretty much summarized the effect the coronavirus has had on the Minnesota Legislature.

“This is eating the news cycle, probably more than it should,” the House Minority Leader said Monday. “But if Minnesotans are concerned about it, we have an obligation to respond.”

They did. But not before Daudt received proof that if legislation wants attention, it better have something to do with a virus. He and his minority caucus was asked whether it was wise to cut taxes before the state understands the potential costs of responding to COVID-19 and the negative impact a spooked economy will have on state tax collections.

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Gov. Tim Walz is expected to release his supplemental budget request Thursday. And while the measure traditionally makes only small changes to the current budget, a $1.5 billion surplus has tempted lawmakers to consider both spending additions and tax cuts, though Walz has preached caution. 

Is he even more cautious now? 

“We have been talking hard about being conservative and responsible about this,” Walz said. “My first response, even before COVID-19 was on the scene, was the belief that there were yellow flashing lights on the economy. I think it would be a mistake not to leave significant resources in reserve and on the bottom line until we understand exactly where this is going to go.”

Both the Legislature and Walz said they have begun contingency planning for how coronavirus-related illnesses and absences might impact the capacity of the Legislature to meet and the government to function.

Tuesday was devoted to a celebration of sorts, if such a term can be applied to a political response to a growing public health emergency. On Monday, both the House and the Senate unanimously approved emergency legislation to put $20,889,000 into a public health response account at the Minnesota Department of Health. Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill on Tuesday, even though the account was not out of money and didn’t need such a rapid refill.

The total was not rounded up, as often happens, because it matched dollar-for-dollar what state health officials requested last week for a batch of spending areas, including: staffing, lab testing, personal protective equipment and money for local health departments and health care coalitions. Rarely do state agencies get exactly what they ask for in a budget.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said she has not seen legislators move this quickly on any other issue she worked on.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said she has not seen legislators move this quickly on any other issue she worked on.
During the bill-signing ceremony in his reception room, Walz and legislative leaders were mutually congratulatory, both for the speed with which they acted and the lack of partisan disagreement.

“I’m proud of the bipartisan work and the leadership shown by the folks who are here with me,” Walz said. “The safety and security of Minnesota citizens is a top priority in this building and in Minnesota government. There is absolutely no daylight between us on those responsibilities.”

The leaders of the four political caucuses in the Legislature followed him to the microphone and echoed similar themes.

“It’s really unusual to see a totally unanimous vote in the Minnesota House of Representatives,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman. “That should give Minnesotans confidence that their government is ready to work together, to bond together, to do the things that have to be done to protect the public health.”

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“Just know that we are unified in Minnesota, the House (and)  the Senate, Republicans and Democrats” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. “We’ll do what we need to do. But keep calm and carry on.”

The latter messaging was also common among the electeds: be concerned, but don’t panic; despite the many questions about COVID-19, it might only be slightly worse than seasonal flu; wash your hands. 

After adopting the funding bill for the first time Monday, Gazelka said the state “shouldn’t legislate out of fear.”

As Walz sat down to sign the bill, the first of the 2020 session, he joked that he wouldn’t be using multiple pens and handing them out as souvenirs, sacrificing tradition for adherence to current advice on hygiene. There were no congratulatory handshakes, though there were a few elbow bumps.

Jan Malcolm, a longtime health care administrator, has been a state Health Commissioner under three different Minnesota governors — Walz, Gov. Mark Dayton and Gov. Jesse Ventura. She said she has not seen legislators move this quickly on any other issue she worked on.

“The speed with which the Legislature came together to work with us is unprecedented,” she said. “And certainly seeing those unanimous votes yesterday was not only important to us, but important to the citizens to see this is how government can work, to put aside any differences of opinion and be guided by the facts and the best thinking.”

But will it continue? Hortman said her caucus wants to give governors more executive authority in times of public health crisis. Current law, for example, allows governors to declare states of emergency for natural disasters and terror attacks but not for public health emergencies such as COVID-19.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka: “Just know that we are unified in Minnesota, the House (and)  the Senate, Republicans and Democrats.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka: “Just know that we are unified in Minnesota, the House (and) the Senate, Republicans and Democrats.”
The Brooklyn Park DFLer said her caucus is also looking at a revolving loan account to help hospitals cover unexpected costs. House Democrats would also like to find some means of getting income to those who lack paid sick leave but who are required to miss work because they are sick or are quarantined. Hortman made only passing reference to the fact that paid leave is a central agenda item of her caucus — and that it has not found support in the GOP Senate.

Gazelka, a Nisswa-area Republican, expressed caution, but did not reject those proposals. “I want the four of us to talk about what powers the governor might need that in the past did not seem necessary,” he said about himself, Hortman, Daudt and Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent. “That is an issue between the executive branch and the legislative branch. But we’ll figure it out. If there’s something that’s necessary we’ll work through to a solution.”

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Left unanswered is whether the Legislature itself will be able to meet continuously through the end of session, which is constitutionally mandated to adjourn by May 18. Malcolm said she doesn’t think the time has come in Minnesota to cancel large events and public gatherings. That could change, she said, based on advice for the national Centers for Disease Control.

Hortman said Monday that there is contingency planning for if the Legislature has to go on hiatus or limit the types of public gatherings that are a daily happening in the Capitol Building.

“We have been in constant communication with the Minnesota Department of Health,” Hortman said. “At anytime that they recommend that we dial back the number of people who are in the building, we would take action to do that.” 

The Legislature would also have to pass amended joint rules to permit them to recess for more than three days.

Walz said his administration, led by Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans, has been planning for what he termed “continuity of operations plans.

Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill in a ceremony Tuesday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill in a ceremony Tuesday.
“We have these plans. It’s getting them out and dusting them off the last few weeks,” Walz said. 

But there are also plenty of questions: about how the state would handle wide use of sick time; what would it do for workers that don’t have enough leave time to cover a two-week quarantine; whether there is even enough internet bandwidth capacity for large numbers of workers to work from home — or enough laptops; and how the Department of Revenue would get secure remote connections to handle tax season.

“It is incumbent upon us to plan for that worse-case scenario,” he said. “We have to protect democracy to make sure we keep going.”

At the announcement regarding House Republicans proposal of a billion dollar tax cut, Daudt circled back to virus worries, drawing a connection between what he wanted to talk about and what reporters wanted to talk about.

“It’s important not to blow that out of proportion,” he said. “Especially at a time of uncertainty in the economy, to put some money back in people’s pocket always spurs economic growth,” he said.

Correction: The story has been changed to reflect that Walz will released his supplemental budget Thursday, not in two weeks.