It was an awkward moment during a Minnesota Senate session like no other.
Calling them the people who are “the most challenged” by the crisis, Sen. Jim Abeler took to the floor of the House during the debate over the state’s COVID-19 response last Thursday to praise a section of the bill — one that would send a $500 check to recipients of the state’s welfare system, the Minnesota Family Investment Program.
After talking about money for more homeless beds, for cleaning supplies for homeless shelters and staffing increases, the Republican from Anoka said: “Finally, there’s an increase in the cash grants for the people on economic assistance for $500 to help them for the challenges that they might be going through.”
Problem was, after having just a few hours to look through a measure that appropriated $330 million for emergency responses to COVID-19, most of the elected members of the Legislature weren’t sure exactly what it contained. And it didn’t contain $500 checks for those in the MFIP.
Sen. Jeff Hayden then rose to say he had prepared a speech lamenting the lack of funding for the MFIP checks, so he was surprised to hear from Abeler that it was in the bill. “Sen. Abeler will you show me either in the bill or on the spreadsheet where that is at? Because it was brought to my attention that it wasn’t there,” said Hayden, a Minneapolis DFLer.
“I just presumed it was,” Abeler said. “We negotiated it yesterday and it seemed like it was all agreed upon. I was told the things that we’d agreed upon were here. If it’s not, I will stand corrected and apologize to the good senator.”
The exchange displayed the unusual process used by the House and the Senate to prepare a bill for the one-day session last Thursday. The negotiations between the House and Senate couldn’t take the normal course, since the Minnesota Legislature wasn’t in session, having recessed March 17 to reduce contact among legislators, staff, lobbyists and residents who often crowd the capitol.
While the House had convened informal conference calls of working groups that mimicked the committee structure, the Senate was even less formal with one-on-one talks. Neither chamber gave public notice about the meetings, and none of it was open to the public.
But even those discussions only produced recommendations of sorts to the four legislative leaders — House and Senate Republicans and House and Senate DFLers — who negotiated in private with Gov. Tim Walz. Among the ground rules were that only things that had agreement from all five were going to make it into the bill, mostly because there were to be no amendments and little debate in order to keep the time on the House and Senate floor to a minimum.
Even then, both chambers used galleries and side rooms so members could spread out during the session. Two dozen House members didn’t attend and 15 senators voted by phone after a rules change allowed them to do so, the first time in state history.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman said while Abeler and the other lawmakers involved social services issues might have agreed, the four leaders did not. House Republicans, she said, objected because the economic impacts of the COVID-19 battle hadn’t reduced payments to MFIP recipients. Also, there was an expectation that federal coronavirus response would include federal checks to most Americans. (Though the federal provision passed, those checks — $1,200 for most adults and $500 per dependent child — might not arrive until fall for some people, especially those who file paper tax returns.)
“It was never in,” Hortman, a Brooklyn Park DFLer, said this week. “We had a requirement that all four caucuses plus the administration sign off.”
And it’s unlikely to ever be. When lawmakers get back to St. Paul for the next phase of their response to the crisis, the MFIP checks probably won’t be taken up. “I would think that proposal which had tough sledding before would have even tougher sledding in light of the federal package,” Hortman said.