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Minnesota lawmakers are either very far from — or very close to — making a deal on ‘hero checks’ for COVID workers

Often in state legislative settings, just when the the sides of a debate seem furthest apart they announce a deal. 

State Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, Sen. Karin Housley and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer speaking at Thursday's press conference.
State Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, Sen. Karin Housley and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer speaking at Thursday's press conference.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Last week, Republican members of a working group charged with giving away $250 million to frontline COVID workers held a press conference to announce their new plan, which was a lot like their old plan. The same day, DFL members criticized the GOP’s plan, saying it left out hundreds of thousands of deserving employees.

The entire working group hasn’t met — publicly at least — since Sept. 2, and any special session to approve the seemingly out-of-reach “hero checks” agreement is entwined with issues like whether Gov. Tim Walz’s health commissioner will be fired — and how to get drought relief to farmers.

All of which means one of two things. Either the Legislature and governor are on the verge of failing so do something that should be easy — giving money away to praiseworthy Minnesotans — or they are exactly where they need to be to have a quick and successful special session.

Such is the theater of public policy (with apologies to the actual Theater of Public Policy). Elected officials often say they don’t want to negotiate in public or in the press, until doing so suits their political needs. 

The GOP press conference Thursday was just that, a public airing of the GOP position in an attempt to put pressure on the DFL by saying any failure would be their fault while hoping to create a split among DFL labor supporters — between those proposed to get checks and those who wouldn’t.

The DFL and many of those same labor organizations responded in kind, saying the GOP is denying deserving workers their payments and making sure that those on the outside will blame Republicans.

Where things stand

The positions seem far apart. The GOP says lots of workers took risks but that the money is limited. And cutting too many checks will shrink the amount after “Pay to the order of.” By limiting the payments to nurses, first responders, long-term care staffers, corrections officers and hospice workers — as the GOP proposal would do, qualifying about 200,000 Minnesotans — the checks could be a more-meaningful $1,200.

For the GOP members, there are obvious differences between employees who were exposed to COVID and a larger pool of food workers, custodians, truck drivers and others who might have been exposed. “All Minnesotans have gone through a very challenging time. Without question. Without question,” said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake. “But when you heard testimony you recognized that this particular group of people are the ones who had the highest risk, the sustained risk and are at a level of risk that is higher than others.”

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The DFL position is this: more people, and likely more money. 

Working group member Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said the number of recipients is the primary difference between the parties. And while Republicans say DFLers want payments to more than one million workers, the latest DFL proposal — based on work with the state Department of Employment and Economic Development — is closer to 600,000.

State Rep. Cedrick Frazier
State Rep. Cedrick Frazier
Even without additional money, that would amount to $400 checks. “Some of our essential workers are not high-wage earners,” he said. “If they get a check for $350, $400 or $500, it will make an impact, For some folks that could be a month of child care, it could be a month of groceries.”

And DFL lawmakers and Walz have said there is both a state surplus and unspent American Rescue Plan money that could supplement the $250 million allocated by the Legislature. “We’re still willing to engage with our GOP colleagues,” Frazier said.

The DFL’s position was summed up Thursday by an ICU nurse who appeared with other labor representatives to call for an expanded program. “It’s not just the nurses who did this,” said Rachel Hanneman. “I would leave my shift and then go to the grocery store or a Starbucks on my way home. There were a whole range of people who worked through this pandemic who didn’t have the opportunity to work from home.”

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Frazier said his frustration is the GOP position that he said tells some workers they are not worthy of being included. And for the workers not included in the Republican proposal, getting checks is both financial and symbolic. After saying that he would support more workers getting smaller checks, Target custodian Troy Bowman said: “Something would be better than nothing. That’s telling us that we did nothing.”

Close to a deal?

Often in state legislative settings, just when the opposite sides of a debate seem furthest apart, just when the disagreements seem unbridgeable, they announce a deal. Both sides hinted at that last week.

“We agree on a lot,” said Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, the deputy minority leader of the House. Lawmakers from both parties and the Walz administration agree that they want checks to be as large as possible and that the frontline health care workers, first responders and corrections staff are deserving. “I actually think we’re close,” she said. “There is far more that we agree on here than that we don’t agree on. I think we’ll get there.”

Target custodian Troy Bowman: “Something would be better than nothing. That’s telling us that we did nothing.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Target custodian Troy Bowman: “Something would be better than nothing. That’s telling us that we did nothing.”
GOP Sen. Karin Housley said if Walz and the DFL wanted more money for checks, they could dip into the $500 million in American Rescue Plan money that the governor was given to allocate as part of a budget deal passed in May. About $250 million of that money remains after Walz funded summer school classes, vaccine incentives as well as operating money for the Minnesota Zoo, the Science Museum, the office of Minnesota Management and Budget and even his own office. 

After again making the case for more recipients, Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, found a silver lining. “It is useful to finally see a counter proposal from our GOP colleagues,” Murphy said.

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There is something of a pattern to negotiations at the Minnesota Legislature. They have to break off several times before deals come together. The most virulent press conferences and speeches can come just days or hours before governors and leaders appear arm-in-arm to announce agreements.

For the hero checks to be the exception to that rule would say a lot about the state of politics, none of it positive, including the fact that the two parties can’t even agree on how to give away money.

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Nick Pfosi
Gov. Tim Walz
Walz and leaders have made public statements recently that the negotiations are ongoing, are making progress and are, in fact, close to agreement. Those statements run counter to the apparent discord on display last week, which could mean that public statements and private talks have different tones. 

Even if they do get there, as Neu Brindley predicted, the hero checks are tied in with a somewhat unrelated issue: Walz has said he wants a limited agenda for any special session where the money would be approved, so that it doesn’t include a vote to fire state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. 

Republicans in the Senate have said they’ll make no such promise, arguing that they are defending the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. But their refusal also offers a signal to some in the GOP base, who see Malcolm as the repository of their objections to Walz’s use of emergency powers during the pandemic.

And even something lawmakers all seemingly agree on — aid to farmers harmed by the drought — has become a bargaining chip in the negotiations.

That would be the final challenge for Walz and the leaders of the four largest legislative caucuses, two of whom have been on the job for just weeks: to finesse a special session where everyone gets what they need and no one loses face.