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Gov. Tim Walz is spending Minnesota’s federal COVID-19 money his way, whether the Legislature likes it or not

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
So far, Gov. Tim Walz’s budget officials have informed what’s called the Legislative Advisory Committee that the administration will spend about $55 million of the money.

Gov. Tim Walz is beginning to spend the nearly $1.9 billion sent to Minnesota by the federal government to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. And he’s doing it on his own.

While that has rankled some Senate Republicans who think the DFL governor should be working collaboratively with them, they don’t question that current law permits him to do — as long as he seeks the advice, but not the consent, of the Legislature.

So far, Walz’s budget officials have informed what’s called the Legislative Advisory Committee that the administration will spend about $55 million of the money. Those expenditures are:

  • $19.484 million for a flexible account to make purchases of critical care medical supplies including personal protective equipment and ventilators as they become available.
  • $20 million for mobile COVID-19 testing units to conduct testing around the state without testing capacity and at hotspots such as food processing plants.
  • $2.005 million for emergency SNAP funding, the state-federal food stamp program, for families that have lost access to free and reduced-price school meals.
  • $3.668 million for delivery of 123,000 prepared meals per month for four months, to homeless shelters and encampments.
  • $1.975 million for surveillance testing across the state to measure the prevalence of coronavirus infection in groups such as health care workers, grocery workers, blood banks and among a sampling of 210 households across the state.
  • $8 million for a computer system to help in the state do contact tracing to track those infected and those they have come in contact with.

All of those purchases have gone through the LAC process, which entails letting 10 days pass for members to comment, but approval is not needed for the governor to act. 

State Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans told the Senate Finance Committee this week that the money for the supplies and equipment purchases is to buy things that are in high demand.

The formal request put it this way: “This procurement has been challenging as the federal government, 49 other states, and many other countries are also purchasing the same medical-grade gowns, gloves, masks, respirators, face shields, and ventilators. Despite the challenges, the state and hospitals have been able to procure enough PPE that, at this point in time, will support current daily usage for between one to two months for all categories except gowns.”

Commissioner Myron Frans
Commissioner Myron Frans
The state has also made additional purchases that have not yet been presented to the LAC, including $16.95 million for a senior nutrition program for those living in their own homes. That program will provide one meal a day to older adults, either for pick up at community sites or delivered to people’s homes. Another $10 million will be spent for a food program administered through community groups, churches and tribes. 

The state will also seek $6 million for food shelves and $35 million to add $50 a month in food assistance to 350,000 families. Additionally, the state wants $8 million for a public outreach campaign to communicate with residents about the virus and what they can do to prevent transmission.

Other likely expenses, not yet requested, are funds for emergency rental assistance; broadband installation for distance learning and telemedicine; and a large distribution of federal money to counties, cities and townships.

Lawmakers want a say

Senate Republicans have been pushing legislation that would require legislative approval for the spending of federal CARES Act money. Walz opposes that, and the House DFL has been prepared to block any Senate bills on the subject. That leaves the current process, which allows the governor to spend the federal dollars as he wishes, with a requirement only that he notifies the Legislature.

The Walz administration has been saying it wants to collaborate with the Legislature but also that it is ready to act on its own if lawmakers don’t agree. Given the division of power between the GOP-controlled Senate and the DFL-controlled House, that is unlikely on many issues. 

State Sen. Torrey Westrom
State Sen. Torrey Westrom
Rental assistance is one example. The Senate passed a $100 million plan to pay the rent and mortgages of the people unable to afford them due to COVID-19-related job losses. But the Senate bill’s linkage of the money to changes in state and local regulation of home building has made it unpalatable in the House.

Sen. Torey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, asked Frans if rental assistance was the kind of thing the administration anticipated moving ahead with on its own — or something it would do “only upon legislative direction.” 

Said Frans: “Our preference would be for legislative action. Obviously these kinds of decisions and the need for such money is now. It’s incumbent upon us to move as quickly as we can and so we would hope there could be some resolution of this.” 

And if it doesn’t happen soon, Frans continued, Walz would move on his own via the advisory committee process.

Local help still an issue

Both the House and Senate considered bills to send $667 million to local governments during the 2020 regular session, though they disagreed on the formula. Walz can do it on his own should the Legislature not act in the upcoming special session.

Frans said the governor is willing to work with lawmakers on spending the federal money. But he also said the administration couldn’t wait long.

“Our goal is really quite simple, to get the money out as quickly as possible,” Frans said. Counties and cities are experiencing both higher expenditures and lower tax revenues. The CARES Act money can reimburse for expenses related to the pandemic but it cannot be used to replace lost revenue.

State’s have been struggling with the rules regarding how they can spend the various flows of money from the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus-relief package that passed Congress in March. While the U.S. Treasury and other agencies have been providing guidance, sometimes even that has changed.

One glaring example is how states should distribute some of their grant to local governments. The act asks, but does not require, that states share 45 percent of their money with counties, cities and townships. 

The state of Minnesota received a total of $2.187 billion. But of that total, $319 million went directly to Hennepin and Ramsey counties, both of which have begun spending it on programs such as rental assistance and small business aid. So, 45 percent of the state’s $2.187 billion, minus the money already sent to the two big counties, would leave $667 million for local governments.

But now the federal government has announced that the state should instead be sharing 45 percent of its share after deducting the Hennepin and Ramsey county direct grants. That means the state should consider giving $842 million to the other counties, i.e. 45 percent of $1.87 billion.

Local governments will certainly prefer that interpretation. But the state is also facing large costs due to the COVID-19 response. And while there is a chance Congress could send additional money to state and local governments, Frans said he is acting as though this is all of the federal aid it will receive.

“We don’t know whether there will be any more money from the federal government or not,” Frans said. “We have to assume that whatever we have is all we’re going to have.” He said Walz is not in favor of using federal money to replace the $520 million in state funds that the Legislature has already spent.

“We do not know what the nature of the response is going to require and I can certainly go through a list of proposals that we are looking at that can more than spend the money that is available,” he said. “We have to remember we are still in the midst of a pandemic … and we would not want the money redirected to the general fund before we feel comfortable that we’ve seen the surge and whether or not there’s more federal money.”

Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 06/06/2020 - 07:48 am.

    There will be fighting amongst all the various levels of government for the money. Because no state likes to spend money like Minnesota. And now that they are going to defund the police, the twin cities will have a lot more. Instead of rental assistance, many will be demanding free rent. Wake up people, can’t you see where this is going? Please read yesterdays article by Peter Bell in the Strib. Will give you a whole other perspective on life. I am glad I’m going back to Florida. The Minnesota Miracle has turned into the Minnesota Nightmare.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/06/2020 - 09:33 am.

      I assume that you’re past the point where education is important to you (or at least that you think it is), but I hope that you don’t need medical care.
      You get what you pay for.

    • Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 06/06/2020 - 01:01 pm.

      This is so reminiscent of the sour person who wrote to Dear Abby in the 1970s to complain about “the gays” moving into the neighborhood, and asking how he/she could make things better. Abby said “You could move.” With that in mind, enjoy Florida, where the Covid death rate is apparently more to your liking.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 06/07/2020 - 04:29 am.

      What kind of chemicals are they spraying on golf courses these days?

    • Submitted by Diana Avarca on 06/12/2020 - 12:33 am.

      What I do not understand is I keep hearing about all this funding for MN I live in Owatonna MN and cannot find help for my utilities or rent assistance all my money has gone on food very high prices and cleaning supplies as we were told to keep in hand because of a virus nobody asked for yet we cannot find help I applied at Semcac in Rushford for my utilities and was completely ignored I still had funds from months ago but cannot get help I have been treated so unfair there

  2. Submitted by T.W. Day on 06/06/2020 - 07:55 am.

    Like Trump, the state’s Republicans are desperately trying to find ways to funnel that money into their own pockets. I wouldn’t trust a Republican with a roll of pennies. Over the last 13 years they have consistently proven that they put party over country and themselves over anything. Waltz is doing a fine job and they hate that as much as they hated the Obama administration’s competence.

    • Submitted by Gerry Anderson on 06/09/2020 - 03:26 pm.

      Or trust Democratic mayors with policing the police. Or isn’t 40 years enough time.

      In sports, the coaches are to blame. Here too.

  3. Submitted by Cha Prince on 06/06/2020 - 08:44 am.

    I know you censor free speech…

    Tim Waltz should leave office…

    Did the Democratic Governor of Minnesota Tim Waltz and the Democratic Mayor of Minneapolis Jacob Frey intentionally and deliberately, with an ulterior political motive, held back doing anything to stop the burning, looting and pillage of Minneapolis for 4 days and nights? Did the two Democrtic politicians hoped the violence would spark race riots elsewhere in America so that they would put President Trump difficult situation? Why did these two Democrats Tim Waltz and Jacob Frey failed to take any action for so many days and nights and allowed an isolated incident of police brutality— escalation into a national crisis?

    • Submitted by Tim McCarthy on 06/06/2020 - 12:08 pm.

      You really should learn what free speech actually IS before you accuse anyone of restricting it.
      Did the Republican commenter, intentionally and deliberately, with an ulterior political motive, make a crazy conspiracy theory?
      Did the Republican commenter hope the violence would spark race riots elsewhere in America so that they could blame Democrats?

      “allowed an isolated incident of police brutality— escalation into a national crisis”
      Isolated? I don’t think you know what that word means.
      At least you barely acknowledge that something bad (murder) was done by the cops.
      If it escalated into a national crisis that would mean the leader of the nation was hiding in a bunker instead of doing anything useful!

    • Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 06/06/2020 - 01:04 pm.

      Your strawman argument doesn’t advance the dialogue much. Would you have preferred that Minneapolis call in the National Guard and have everybody start shooting? Did you feel there should have been more tear gas and beatings and endless court cases claiming police (1) abuse, or (2) indifference? Sometimes when you’re sitting in a puddle of gasoline it’s actually WISER not to light a match to see how deep it is.

    • Submitted by tom kendrick on 06/06/2020 - 02:58 pm.

      Nobody “let” the looting and burning go on. It happened, and the police and firefighters were utterly overwhelmed. They eventually responded, brought order, and now things are calming down. But before we go back to “normal,” we MUST consider: why was this mob response so intense? Why was the burning and looting seemingly so excessive?

      And by the way, a heavy handed response from police and National Guard would’ve amped up all the wrong things. After George Floyd’s death, how many were killed? That showed remarkable restraint by the governor, and he walked an extremely difficult line between honoring the demonstrators’ rights and steadily bringing the rioters to a halt.

      Two thoughts come to mind. There is a great deal of unimaginable frustration out there from people who will never be able to be a part of the system of moving ahead, of having dreams that their children will live a better life than they did. That path is not available for a whole lot of people, so we must construct that now, in the aftermath. Someone mentioned the Strib article by Bell and Perlstien. Excellent, and this must be part of the dialogue.

      There were also people in the crowd who were doing their damndest to hijack the moral outrage so many people felt over George Floyd’s death and create even more chaos. These are two separate things.Many many thousands of blacks and whites want an end to police brutality against blacks, and they want a better way ahead for all. THAT is what we need to create. So let’s start calling our elected leaders. Let’s sign up. Let’s volunteer, whether working a shovel and wheelbarrow or joining a discussion group. Let’s get out from behind these social media screens and hook up with real people. The time is now.

      • Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/07/2020 - 10:07 am.

        So why did the burnings, looting and violence end when Walz finally gave the authority to police and Guardsmen to stop it? What facts do you have where it would have gotten worse with an actual presence of authority on the streets? Show me a city with a strong presence where it got worse. I can show you multiple cities where “stand down” orders from Mayors and Governors escalated the rioting, Mpls, Chicago, DC come to mind.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/06/2020 - 10:27 pm.

      Geez, 8:44 am seems a little early for a drunken rant, but that was quite the doozy…

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/06/2020 - 09:14 am.

    Walz has asked Republicans for feedback. Provide it rather than griping. Here is how.

    If you object to anything he suggests, say so and provide your reasons. Likewise. If you are OK with an idea, but think more or less should be spend, explain. Finally, if he is missing something you think should be funded and isn’t make your case.

    If you chose to do it privately, it will not seems as much likely election year grousing to gain advantage.. It seems like you are demanding something that isn’t your right rather than doing the work to put together a concrete proposal. And make it quick – this money is emergency spending.

  5. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 06/06/2020 - 01:09 pm.

    Interesting that Senate Republicans think the DFL governor should be working collaboratively with them, while it has been rare that they will work with him or the Dems. This never used to be the case, but it certainly has been for recent decades.
    We can’t even get them to support our crumbling infrastructure, education or affordable healthcare…or anything for the people…just more tax cuts and subsidies to the wealthy who do not need this assistance

  6. Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/07/2020 - 09:58 am.

    With 950+ deaths coming from LTC facilities, where is the money to help them? People, we lead the nation in long term care facilities at the astonishing rate of over 80% of all deaths due to COViD 19! So millions and millions to help with food distribution but I didn’t see a thing about LTC help. Why?

  7. Submitted by Alan Straka on 06/07/2020 - 05:22 pm.

    Why does it not surprise me that Hennepin and Ramsey immediately got a share of the money while the rest of the state waits. Outstate Minnesota is probably going to get shortchanged as usual.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/08/2020 - 09:00 am.

      Does it have to be explained yet again that tax money in Minnesota flows out of the metro area into Greater Minnesota?

      Does it have to be explained yet again that most of the people in Minnesota live in the metro area?

    • Submitted by Mark Snyder on 06/08/2020 - 01:19 pm.

      That happened because the disbursements were based on population size. Take it up with your Congressional representative.

    • Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 06/08/2020 - 04:48 pm.

      Does it surprise anyone that the GOP wanted no bonding in DFL districts. Before you make baseless complaints, check your facts.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 06/08/2020 - 05:38 pm.

      Uhhhhh, because that’s where most of the people live?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/08/2020 - 07:45 pm.

      Well the rural folk keep telling us it’s just an urban problem.

      So why does Yellow Medicine County need any money?

  8. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 06/08/2020 - 04:46 pm.

    The Senate bonding proposal allocated NO spending in any DFL districts in their final proposals. So Gazelka and Daudt should answer why they did that to their fellow Minnesotans in their proposals.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/10/2020 - 11:34 am.

      Gazelka and Daudt probably do not recognize residents of DFL districts as “fellow Minnesotans,” but as alien interlopers.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/10/2020 - 10:31 am.

    It’s nice to see that folks like Joe Smith finally understand the importance of supporting long term care facilities. Let’s start repealing all budget cuts and deregulation Republicans have been inflicting on our elderly for decades.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/10/2020 - 10:33 am.

    The demand that we link COVID response to something that has absolutely NOTHING to with COVID is such a typical Republican demand. It’s like they get up every morning and ask themselves: “What can we screw up today?”

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/10/2020 - 10:42 am.

    Walz and his team are making some big mistakes. The push to hire a private consultant (I hear Deloitte is the preferred “vendor”) is incredibly problematic. This will do little to improve or create contact investigation capacity, but it will give Deloitte (or whoever gets the contract) another skill set to add to their portfolio. Since no private contractor actually has the skill set to do contact tracing, or even train contact tracers, they will either fumble around on their own screwing things up for a couple months, or we’ll have to take State professionals off the line to teach the contractors how to do what already being done.

    In the meantime, scaling up contract tracing itself is probably a waste of resources since we’re not dealing with separate and discrete “outbreaks”.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/10/2020 - 10:51 am.

    Walz and his team may be on the brink of making another big mistake regarding the computer program their thinking about buying. MDH already a database capable of handling this workflow, and its reliable and live at the moment. All they need is a few add-on’s to expand existing capabilities, this would add permanent capacity to MDH for future crises, and would be a lot more cost effect than the program under consideration. MDH epidemiologists have already made amazing improvements using the software already at their disposal.

    The software Walz et al are considering for purchase has been deployed already in other states and has failed. Unfortunately Walz and his team are proceeding with all of the “planning” without the input and advice of those who currently do the work and know how to do the work. Let’s hope some sense creeps in before the checks are written.

  13. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 06/11/2020 - 03:09 pm.

    OF COURSE Republicans say they want a say about how Governor Walz spends COVID 19 money. When will Daudt, Gazelka and other Repubs get it that this isn’t a political thing? It’s a human thing! Carnahan! tell your lieutenants to get their acts together make political hay by supporting the gov and his team who are OBVIOUSLY doing it right!

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