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Minnesota’s 2020 legislative session was defined by what got pushed aside to respond to COVID-19

A look at all the people, issues and customs that got forgotten, left behind or disappeared during one of the most unique legislative sessions in Minnesota history. 

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
House Speaker Melissa Hortman: "The first five weeks we had this pandemic, we had really kind of a magical moment. Everyone needs to put in the effort to get back there …"

When the coronavirus first became a factor in the 2020 session of the Minnesota Legislature, it wasn’t clear how big of a role it would play.

“This is eating the news cycle, probably more than it should,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said of the virus in early March. 

But within just a few days of those remarks, responding to coronavirus became not just another issue, but the only issue.

The Legislature adjourns Monday, but its last official votes had to come by midnight Sunday. There were no deals on the biggest remaining puzzle pieces: a measure to pay for a package of public construction projects known as the bonding bill; changes to tax law related to the likely COVID recession; any additional COVID-response spending. 

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Those issues will likely be back in mid-June for an unusual, and lengthy, special session. But the 2020 regular session is likely to be remembered less for what happened than for what didn’t; less for what made it through to the end than for what disappeared along the way.

Here, then, is a look at all the things that fell by the wayside during one of the most unique Legislatures in Minnesota history: 

Almost anything not tied to coronavirus or responding to it: When the coronavirus crisis hit, bills that had seemed vital a week before simply went away. Gov. Tim Walz and the leaders of the four major caucuses decided that because time in session and committee would be limited, those hours needed to focus on the virus and only legislation that could be mutually agreed upon by the parties. 

“I think there was strong agreement that those policy issues that were in people’s hearts, that they feel very strongly about, but that are hard to rectify weren’t going to get done and would have probably eaten up time as we dealt with COVID-19 so they set those aside,” Walz said.

Those set-aside issues included: recreational marijuana, which DFLers knew wouldn’t pass the GOP-Senate but seemed determined to show that they supported it; a push by Democrats to reinstate driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants; and blocking release of party preference data for presidential primary voters.

A Republican effort to block a five-year cap on most probationary periods that had been adopted by the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission was also out, as was a GOP push to eliminate state income taxes on social security income. 

Also left behind was a constitutional amendment to declare that a quality education was a right for Minnesota students, an issue being pushed by former Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari. 

Partisanship (for a while): When Walz signed the first bill responding to the virus — a $20 million appropriation to the Minnesota Department of Health that seems naively tiny now — the four caucus leaders stood by, pledging their support. 

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And they did. The first bills that passed after the Legislature returned from hiatus did so with large bipartisan votes. While there was some grumbling by some Republicans about the impacts of the first declaration of peacetime emergency — and the first closures of public spaces, like bars and restaurants — the complaints were relatively muted.

But something as powerful as partisanship in a legislative body can’t be suppressed for long. Eventually, DFLers accused Republicans of standing in the way of a bonding bill and not caring about state employees over their blocking the ratification of collective bargaining agreements. Republicans said the DFL was indifferent to the looming budget deficits and uncaring about high school graduations while pushing for bills to cap Walz’s emergency powers and give lawmakers more say in how federal CARES Act dollars are spent.

Diverging views over everything from the need and effectiveness of Minnesota’s stay-at-home order to whether masks should be worn around the Capitol also grew more pronounced.

“The first five weeks we had this pandemic, we had really kind of a magical moment,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “Everyone needs to put in the effort to get back there …. We can always resume our regularly scheduled programming which is fighting about minimum wage, pro-life/pro-choice, general disposition towards taxes and the kind of society we want to live in.”

Some bills did pass and go to Walz for his signature. Emergency insulin for diabetics, for example, and a bill to make tobacco purchase illegal for anyone under 21, both passed with bipartisan support. 

There was also a bipartisan elections bill that appropriated federal funds and prepared the state for COVID-impacted elections, but it was agreed to only because both parties gave up their most-controversial wishes: all vote-by-mail (for the DFL) for the 2020 elections and voter ID (for Republicans).

Transparency: After going into a COVID-forced recess on March 16, it seemed as though the House and Senate were waiting for a safer time to return. In fact, both were meeting without public notice and without public participation. Both the House and Senate created new ways to meet in secret, using the emergency as a rationale.

Only when a one-day session was announced did both reveal that they had gone underground to craft the second COVID-response bill, this one worth $330 million.

The situation got slightly better after that, with teleconferences for committee meetings and sporadic floor sessions to officially pass bills

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Lawmakers themselves: After the secret Legislature surfaced, both the House and Senate pledged to be more transparent. Teleconferences replaced in-person committee meetings and floor sessions featured new structures and new House and Senate rules that allowed members to take part and even vote from home. Such was born the tedious chore of calling roll by bringing members into the chamber in sequence to vote, as was done in the Senate, or by lengthy oral roll calls, as was done in the House. And both chambers permitted members to vote by telephone.

People: Elected officials like to call the Capitol “The People’s House.” But from mid-March on there weren’t a lot of people there. The public, including members of the public with jobs like lobbyist or reporter, could watch committee meetings on teleconference. Folks who want to testify could ask staff to be put on a list. But the awkwardness served to limit those encounters, while killing any type of in-person lobbying or rotunda rallies.

Lawmakers touted their availability by email or phone, and some were even willing to schedule in-person meetings. But those were rare, especially for lawmakers who did not work from their St. Paul offices.

Zoom can’t replace the type of hallway buttonholing and in-your-face rallying that makes legislating so interesting … and sometimes menacing. “The problem with COVID and doing many things by Zoom is some of the intensity of the people around us who bring the pressure to help us get to the end — none of that is here,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “That causes some people not to feel the pressure.”

Face-to-face negotiations: It’s hard to say the end-of-session in-person negotiation sessions between governors and legislative leaders have “disappeared” since they were always out of sight, but they have changed dramatically amid COVID-19.  

Gazelka Saturday said he has been on the phone six-to-eight times a day with Hortman, and there have been leadership calls with Walz. But it is not the same sitting across from someone, and the new setup has made it much harder to hammer out compromises.

“Part of negotiation is being face-to-face with somebody and watching body language … it’s much more difficult,” Gazelka said. “As we’re coming to an end, without a doubt, it’s more difficult.”

The normal budgeting process: Under state law, the governor can spend any unexpected federal money the state receives after a state budget is approved. And though any expenditures are presented to a committee of lawmakers, known as the Legislative Advisory Commission, the process only seeks legislative advice, not consent. In the end, the governor can spend the money however he wants.

Yet that process never envisioned a governor having access to the massive pool of money sent to Minnesota under the federal CARES Act, the COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress. And with emergency powers given him under the declaration, Walz can do all sorts of things on his own — and has the money to pay for them.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, shown speaking with state Sen. Tom Bakk: "Part of negotiation is being face-to-face with somebody and watching body language … it’s much more difficult. As we’re coming to an end, without a doubt, it’s more difficult."
This is why Senate Republicans were so eager to assert legislative authority over spending the state’s $2 billion share of CARES money. 

Lawmakers couldn’t agree on how — or how much — to spend to help low-income residents make rent or mortgage payments, for example. Absent their agreement, Walz could likely create a program and use CARES money to pay for it. The same is true for how to pass along CARES money to local governments throughout the state, which is why Walz didn’t support legislation requiring legislative votes to spend it.

“We think it makes sense as it always is: once the budget sets and once the money is there, the administration administers that,” Walz said Friday. “That’s the proper way to move forward.”

Deadline pressure: A quirk of state law on declaring states of emergency also took away any end-of-session deadline pressure for lawmakers to find compromise.

That’s because when a governor declares a state of emergency, it lasts just 30 days; lawmakers must be given a chance to rescind it by a majority vote of both the House and Senate. With Walz as governor and fellow DFLers in control of the House, that was unlikely to happen, but they had to be given the opportunity.

Now, because Walz’s current declaration expires June 12, if he wants to extend it again he is obligated by state law to call a special session to give both the House and Senate a chance to rescind. Both chambers now expect to be back at the Capitol by June 13 and to stay in session, technically at least, for the rest of the year.

Even so, over the weekend legislative leaders tried to keep the heat on the House and Senate to get as much done as possible, with the knowledge that any bill left hanging is one more potential bargaining chip in final talks.

“It’s much better to resolve these issues now,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “It doesn’t actually make it easier doing it in June. It just means we have more time to dance around the issues instead of sitting down and cutting a deal.”

The requirement for a session also takes away the governor’s normal power to set the agenda for a special session by forcing agreements on its length and breadth. “The governor calls it, the legislative branch decides when it ends,” Gazelka said.

That means there was no reason for either side to give in on items like the bonding bill. Because bond sales require support of three-fifths of the House and Senate, not a simple majority, minority caucuses have significant leverage. Neither side offered votes because they said they weren’t sufficiently brought into negotiations by the majority caucuses; they also knew there would be time to get a better deal come June.

There is no better evidence that deadlines meant less this year than the fact that the one task expected of even-year sessions, a bonding bill, didn’t get done.