Passing controversial issues before the divided Minnesota Legislature was never going to be easy in 2020.
COVID-19 might have made it impossible.
Before the coronavirus crisis hit the Legislature, forcing it into recess and then into socially distanced sessions and tele-committee meetings, issues like tax cuts, gun safety, voter ID and affordable child care could be discussed and debated; there could be press conferences and rotunda rallies.
But when lawmakers convene Tuesday for just the third time since recessing on March 16, a new reality will make those activities a distant memory, even if they are barely a month old. The capitol is open but visitors are not encouraged. Many lawmakers will be voting remotely. The public events calendar is nearly empty.
And unless it has something to do with the state’s response to coronavirus, it probably isn’t getting done.
What to expect on Tuesday — and after
An agreement among legislative leaders for the last two months required unanimity among the four caucuses and the governor: during two one-day sessions, only issues that were approved by House and Senate DFL leaders and House and Senate GOP leaders were brought to votes.
While the show of togetherness was good for the public, there was also a more practical reason for the move. To get everything done in the tight time frames, chamber rules require suspension of rules, which needs a supermajority vote, giving minority parties clout they don’t usually have.
When the Legislature meets Tuesday, both chambers will take up a bill filled with authority changes to make government functions work at a time when even most government employees are working from home. Couples wanting to get married won’t have to appear at the marriage license counter in person, for example, and health plans will be required to cover telemedicine appointments. The bill also includes provisions for lowering the license fees for hearses, adding of language for interpreting changes to wills, and giving more authority to the Health Commissioner to create temporary hospitals.
So what about after Tuesday?
The two chambers could revert to their normal dynamic, with the House DFL being able to block Senate GOP initiatives and vice versa. But the current plan is to get through Tuesday and then disperse, holding committee meetings via teleconference and regathering in chambers only when items are ready to be passed, which also suggests that the rules suspensions might still be needed.
That could be the pattern for the last month of the 2020 regular session, which is constitutionally required to end May 18. House Speaker Melissa Hortman said last week that with both committee research staff and the attorneys who put bills into legal form working from home, “the capacity of the Minnesota House of Representatives to process bills is not the same. We’ve tried to focus the work on the things that can find bipartisan agreement and to get done.”
Among the things on which there is bipartisan agreement: the need for providing rental payment assistance and the desire to do more to help small businesses.
“What are we doing to make sure we keep as many people with a job in Minnesota as we can,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who wants to keep small businesses running “because once they go out of business it is much more difficult to bring them back and get them going again and get the economy going again.”
Also of concern is the financial health of hospitals, especially those in Greater Minnesota, and helping long-term care facilities combat the spread of COVID-19. Lawmakers also need to resolve how to pay for the workers’ compensation bill they passed Tuesday.
Gov. Tim Walz is also putting a package of requests together. “There’s more help in there for small businesses,” he said. “We’ve got some tweaks to what we’ve already done, making sure we’re paying for them correctly, some changes dealing with corrections.”
Walz said he’ll also ask lawmakers to put into statute some of the changes he’s made via executive order under his declaration of a peacetime emergency.
For the Legislature, other issues will require agreement before leaders deem them worthy of going through the complications of holding final votes. “Anything where members can come to an agreement and a bill can pass the House and Senate, that’s the highest priority,” said Hortman. “There’s no reason not to be able to do our normal workload.”
An emergency insulin bill fits into that category, despite an awkward announcement about the deal that was struck last week. But many of the initiatives her caucus was pushing pre-COVID-19 are likely off the table. “People’s plans with regard to spending will be radically different,” said Hortman after the March 26 one-day session.
Mission-critical work includes a supplemental budget (which will still likely be heavily related to the crisis), a tax bill and a bonding bill. The latter is considered the primary task of even-year sessions and had been the subject of some partisan dispute over the level of borrowing. But COVID has altered that discussion, with Walz arguing that bonding is one way state government can stimulate economic activity, even while expressing concern that the additional debt service on new bond sales must be considered as state revenues fall due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis.
There is also some disagreement on what to do in the short-term for what is certain to be a long-term budget problem. “The thing we do is begin to act right now,” Gazelka said. “As we’re spending money right now, I want people to think about the budget next year.”
But Hortman said she has a somewhat different philosophy. “We’re right now in a battle to solve this public health emergency,” she said last week. “Right now our focus is on the very urgent needs that people have.”
Shortly after the March 26 one-day session, she described her approach like this: “We need to fire the bullets right now and figure out who’s gonna pay for the bullets later. We’re in a war with this virus.”
How much things have changed
On other issues unrelated to budgets or COVID-responses or those lacking agreement, it is less likely that either the House or Senate will take a lot of time passing bills they know will die in the other chamber. Seen more often during big campaign years — all 201 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot in November — these votes are meant to please constituency groups or to force bad votes that the parties will use in campaign literature in the fall.
So recreational marijuana probably won’t get a lot of legislative attention. Nor will the GOP push to cut taxes (“Get Your Billion Back Minnesota,” read the posters), including an end to all income taxation of social security income. DFL hopes for boosting spending for child care assistance and early childhood education — the “Greats Start For All Minnesota Children Act” — is also unlikely to make a comeback. Nor will gun safety bills that were never going to pass the Senate.
Other issues that burned bright for a time before COVID-19 now seem especially distant, replaced by more immediate fights. Protecting the privacy of presidential primary voters has been replaced by a push for vote-by-mail, for example, while letting the secretary of state to spend money from 2019 on election security has been complicated by the expected infusion of federal money to help cover the challenges of voting in coronavirus-sheltered America.
As lawmakers return for just the third day of session in four weeks, it is striking to look at how quickly the crisis changed the Capitol. It was March 2 when Walz, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and legislative leaders from both parties held the first media briefing on their response to COVID-19, what was still an emerging threat.
“Obviously we’re all watching the news,” Malcolm said then of reports regarding increasing numbers of cases and deaths in the U.S. “Based upon what we’re seeing, we do believe it’s likely that we will see cases and likely in the very near future.”
Even a week later, when Walz signed the first COVID-19 funding bill — a now seemingly tiny $21 million for public health services — he and legislative leaders crowded at a podium in a crowded reception room and joked about not passing out souvenir pens as participants awkwardly elbow-bumped their congratulations.
Just the day before, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt lamented that COVID-19 was monopolizing attention, as illustrated by the sparse attendance at a press conference on a House GOP tax cut plan. “This is eating the news cycle, probably more than it should,” Daudt said. “But if Minnesotans are concerned about it, we have an obligation to respond.”
Two days later, Walz signed his executive order declaring a state of peacetime emergency, and four days after that he ordered schools closed. Over the next two weeks, bars, restaurants and other public gathering places were ordered shuttered; the Legislature went into recess; the stay at home order was signed; and the state had its first death from COVID-19.