It had been nine months since they’d last gathered in a public setting to show unanimous support for an action to address the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.
On March 10, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent stood with Gov. Tim Walz just as the scope of the pandemic was beginning to raise alarms to show solidarity in the state’s looming battle. Back then, Walz brought them into his reception room, sans masks and social distancing, to mark the signing of an emergency appropriation to the Minnesota Department of Health for $20,889,000 to battle the virus. Simpler times.
In the intervening months, more than 355,000 Minnesotans have been infected, more than 4,000 have died, the state has spent more than half of million dollars of its own resources and well north of $2 billion in federal resources to deal with the pandemic’s fallout — even as Walz and most U.S. governors say they need billions more.
Over that same time, the state’s response to the pandemic became the No. 1 political issue, one that has further divided the Legislature and the state. Six special sessions were convened and nearly as many Senate votes to rescind Walz’s declaration of a peacetime state of emergency were held. The Senate’s fired two of the governor’s commissioners and the state held an election that left the state’s divided government intact.
There was some agreement among the leaders — eventually — on the criminal justice reforms passed in July. And there have been Zoom meetings in private. But there was no public get together in the midst of a pandemic restricted Legislature, until now.
So what was enough to bring the gang back together this week?
Sharing a room if not a stage with Walz, the four partisan leaders of the Legislature, now properly masked and distanced, helped launch the state’s COVID-19 vaccination program. One by one the DFL governor’s political allies and his political antagonists stood to praise what they said was finally good news about the pandemic.
The development and distribution of the vaccine is “being done in accordance with science, it is not a partisan political exercise,” Hortman said. “The four of us are here today to say that this is not a political issue and is something we all share together, the hope that this is the beginning of the end.”
Then came Gazelka. “I’m glad that there is something that we agree on and I think pretty strongly,” he said. “We did disagree on a number of things throughout COVID but this points us to the place we all want to be, reopening Minnesota, getting the kids back in school, letting businesses function, getting back to normal. That’s why you see all four leaders here with the governor … this is the place we’ve found common ground.”
To further the bipartisan theme, after Gazelka and Daudt praised President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for overseeing the rapid vaccine development program, Operation Warp Speed, Walz did as well. “It’s no secret to anyone here that COVID and a lot of things have become highly politicized in an election year,” Walz said. “I think we need to acknowledge when things work on both sides of things, that that’s a way we come together. We need to say it when it happens.”
The return of the four also comes at a crucial time for the Legislature. Walz and all four caucuses have pledged to come up with a relief bill to help bars, restaurants and other businesses closed in the latest pandemic shutdowns as well as extending unemployment insurance for those facing a cutoff of benefits later this month. While committee chairs and minority caucus leads have been negotiating the details, the final decisions on any package will again be made by the governor and the four leaders.
Still unresolved is whether a DFL proposal to use federal funds to give $500 one-time payments to recipients of the state’s welfare system, the Minnesota Family Investment Program, will be included. Republicans have been reluctant to go along with the idea, which has been around since April.
Republicans have also warned against putting a lot of other provisions on whatever attempted compromise comes out. Thursday’s House Ways and Means hearing, however, includes not only the MFIP provision but others, including a $50 million state money addition to the $100 million rent and mortgage assistance plan paid for with federal CARES Act money.
A session has already been called for Monday [PDF], in line with yet another 30-day extension of the peacetime state of emergency. Thursday, key committees in the House and Senate have scheduled hearings to discuss the bills — if there are bills to discuss.
At the same time, Walz and other governors are calling for Congress to adopt another COVID-19 relief bill, one that includes additional funds for the state and local governments. The CARES Act passed in the spring sent $150 billion to states and locals while the compromise bill offered last week by a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers had $160 billion.
Additional money to state and local governments is not so far supported by Republican leaders or President Trump.
While it can afford to offer some help, especially since the updated revenue forecast last week turned a budget deficit into a surplus, the state proposal is in the $400 million range while the CARES Act sent $2.2 billion directly to Minnesota, Hennepin County and Ramsey County. The value of additional unemployment payments, direct checks to state residents and additional funds to hospitals, transit agencies, schools and universities added billions more.
“This is like if your neighbor’s house is on fire and you have a garden hose,” Hortman said. “Until the fire department gets there, your neighbor would think you’re a real jerk if you don’t do whatever you can with the garden hose. But the federal government has so many more resources. They are the fire department.”
Added Walz: “The speaker is exactly right that we can’t do a lot but that’s no reason not to. We can still provide that help.”
Yet if money is to get to businesses before the end of the year or unemployment benefits before the current extension ends, the Legislature will have to agree in time for the Monday session.