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'We ran out of time': Lawmakers leave St. Paul with more to do on COVID-19 response

After they crafted a $330 million aid package largely in secret, lawmakers realized they left out critical provisions.

Four members of the Minnesota Senate on Thursday, March 26, 2020, stood for a prayer ahead of the chamber's session to take up an emergency COVID-19 proposal. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — Six feet apart and with hand sanitizer in tow, lawmakers returned to the Minnesota Capitol this week to pass the third round of funding to confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the total cases and death toll from the disease again climbed in Minnesota, state lawmakers sped through a $330 million plan to fund child care providers, put up homeless individuals in motels, stock food shelves and food banks. The plan also sets up a $200 million COVID-19 fund that can be used to respond to the effects of the pandemic.

It's the state's third funding infusion to address the outbreak and its effects in the state. Earlier this month lawmakers approved $21 million for the state Department of Health and $200 million to hospitals and health care providers. And lawmakers said it won't be the last.

Even before the Legislature sent the aid package to the governor on Thursday, they acknowledged they'd left work undone.

"We ran out of time and we did make some mistakes as we went forward," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said, noting lawmakers were running up against the Saturday start of the governor's two-week stay at home order. “We know we have more work to do."


Process led to problems

Lawmakers rushed to put together an aid package as the pandemic took hold in Minnesota. And they struggled to navigate the technology needed to convene committee or caucus meetings remotely. In their efforts to quickly assess what could pass the divided Legislature in a one-day session, with lots of social distancing, they turned to calls with limited groups of legislators.

While policy and spending plans typically get vetted out over several committee hearings with public review, these plans were vetted out of the public eye. Representatives in the Minnesota House on Thursday raised concerns about the fact that several lawmakers had yet to read the bill when they took to the floor to debate it.

The proposal was released to the public 10 minutes before the House came into session. And in the Senate, Sen. Tom Bakk, D-Cook, asked one of the bill drafters why the proposal pulled money from a fund designated for mining projects on the Iron Range.

“As soon as we can be closer than six feet together, I’m happy to talk about it," Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, responded, noting he'd just learned of the funding source earlier that morning.

Later in the discussion, Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, touted a provision in the aid package that would provide up to $500 in support per family on the Family Investment Program, the state's welfare payment. But when Sen. Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis, asked in what section of the bill that payment was spelled out, Abeler acknowledged that he thought the provision had been included in the bill but apparently was left out.

In the rush to wrap up a bill before a stay at home order was set to take effect and under new social distancing restrictions, legislative leaders said other measures failed to make the cut.

Proposals for additional supports for small businesses, rent assistance and pay for hourly school employees like paraprofessionals and food service workers fell away as legislative leaders aimed to reach a deal before Wednesday.

And concerned about a lack of support from the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Advisory Council, Gazelka pulled a proposal to grant emergency responders workers' compensation if they contracted COVID-19 while on the job.


Call for action, more state support

First responders, along with small business owners, hourly school workers, Minnesotans who'd recently lost their jobs and others tried to make their case to legislators that they needed help, quickly, to ease the pain of the pandemic and state orders aiming to contain it.

“We can’t stand shoulder to shoulder, after Saturday, we can’t even be here, so we need action now," Minnesota Professional Firefighters President Chris Parsons said during a Thursday morning press conference on the Capitol steps. "This is a crisis and in crisis, we need decisive action."

Lawmakers echoed those concerns Thursday as the House and Senate took up the $330 million aid bill and said they would need to do more to offset the impact of executive orders requiring many businesses to close and non-essential workers to stay at home. The aid package included $10 million for business loans, but many said that wouldn't cut it.

“If we are going to bail out the state of Minnesota, how come we are not helping out those small businesses who without question are going to fail?” Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, asked.

The Department of Employment and Economic Development on Friday reported that 204,158 Minnesotans had filed for unemployment insurance since March 16. That number represented more than had applied in all of 2019. Legislative leaders said they expected the impacts of the growing number of unemployed workers and struggling businesses to spur more action from the Legislature in coming weeks.

"There’ll be a tremendous amount more pressure on everyone after a bunch of landlords don’t get paid on April 1, so my hope would be that those negotiations would accelerate,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said.

Legislative leaders on Thursday adjourned until April 14, but they said they could come back prior to that if COVID-19 response plans or other legislation garnered bipartisan support and the vote totals needed to get it through both chambers in one day. House lawmakers on Thursday approved a resolution requiring meetings held remotely to be made public. The Senate did not.

“We have a large amount of work to do, we just don’t know what it is yet," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said. "We don’t know if the economy is going to deliver a budget deficit that we’ll have to come back later in order to cover, we don’t know what kind of recovery economic and otherwise is going to be, we don’t know if there’s going to be another wave of pandemic in the summer or fall so we know very little about what the next 10 months look like."


Members of the Minnesota House of Representatives on Thursday, March 26, 2020, prepared to come into session to address the COVID-19 epidemic in the state. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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