— UPDATED at 9:04 p.m.
When releasing his supplemental budget proposal Thursday morning, Gov. Tim Walz made sure to focus on the knowns and unknowns of the COVID-19 pandemic while tempering expectations for much else with the state’s projected surplus.
“If ever there is a time for a one-page budget this is it,” said the state’s top elected official.
The budget forecast released Feb. 27 indicates state has a projected $1.5 billion surplus for the current biennium. Walz’s proposal calls for $491.37 million to replenish the state’s budget reserve to nearly $2.36 billion and $256.93 million in new spending.
His proposal leaves almost $1.17 billion on the bottom line, money the governor said could be used to respond to the COVID-19 virus. For example, Walz said he expects hospital officials to ask for more than $100 million in state aid to address the coronavirus outbreak.
“There are going to be resources needed during this pandemic. It makes sense to me to leave those numbers on the bottom line so that we’re in a position to be flexible and react,” Walz said. “… The No. 1 priority has to be the safety of Minnesotans.”
[MORE: View the spreadsheet]
The largest totals in the governor’s request for the current biennium include $33.95 million for direct care and treatment operating adjustments; $30 million to address a deficiency in the state’s disaster assistance account; and nearly $20.9 million for the state’s Public Health Response Contingency Account — that was signed into law Tuesday.
Other funding includes: $12.75 million for Corrections Department overtime and staffing; $3.7 million to improve transit safety; $3.17 million to prevent and end veteran homelessness; almost $3.1 million for storage, tracking and testing sexual assault examination kits; $2.4 million for REAL ID temporary staffing; and a $2 million increase in child care grants.
“Governor Walz has put forward a reasonable and responsible proposal that makes needed investments while preserving our state’s fiscal stability and flexibility in a time of great uncertainty,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) said in a statement. “Minnesota House DFLers are looking forward to our continued partnership with the Governor as we work on our budget proposals and our state’s response to COVID-19.”
The House DFL has been pushing to use a large chunk of the projected surplus for early childhood measures, while Republicans have urged tax cuts and/or refunds.
Urging expectations on both sides of the aisle to be tempered, Walz noted that 2021 is not a budget year, rather one that should be focused on a “robust bonding bill,” paying back the budget reserve and addressing emergencies that arise.
“This is not the time to posture around issues that we’re not going to reach consensus around,” Walz said. “If we get this done, it puts us in a strong position for spring flooding; it puts us in a strong position for the COVID situation. … Now is not the time to be here trying to make political points.”
Message to Legislature: hurry it up
Walz is urging the Legislature to pass what needs to be done — namely bonding and a supplemental budget bill focusing on emergencies — and go home.
“They want to get a very robust bonding bill done. It would be my suggestion to them to try and knock that out. … It makes sense to me to ensure that our democratic process plays itself out, but we’re starting to see people question whether people gathering in the Capitol is a good thing.”
The legislative session must end by May 18.
“This is a perfect time for us to be efficient,” Walz said.
Steps are being taken immediately in the House Chamber, including limiting access to members and staff necessary for the day’s session, school groups are not permitted on the House Floor and members cannot bring guests on the House Floor or into the Retiring Room.
“We are doing everything that we can to ensure that the public, all legislators and staff are safe; that this is a workplace that continues to function well and that our democracy remains and continues to function, said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley). “As state leaders we will be responding to the needs of Minnesotans in the coming weeks. … We are continuing to work together across party lines to ensure that we are as prepared as possible to address this public health crisis.”
The four legislative leaders issued a statement Thursday night, saying they "will continue to be in conversation through the weekend about the agenda for the session and how to conduct legislative proceedings in light of COVID-19." They noted access to legislative activity and the Capitol remains as is for now.
In a statement earlier in the day, three legislators who are doctors by trade — Rep. Alice Mann (DFL-Lakeville), Rep. Kelly Morrison (DFL-Deephaven) and Sen. Matt Klein (DFL-Mendota Heights) — urged lawmakers to cancel large gatherings in the community and at the Capitol Complex.
“There is evidence that ‘flattening the curve’ of this infection by slowing viral spread through social isolation will allow the healthcare system to catch up and not become overwhelmed. This will allow the system to be best prepared for the possibility of needing to provide appropriate ICU care to those who may need it. This will be vital to prevent mortality in high-risk populations.”
Scheduled to give his State of the State address March 23 in the House Chamber, Walz said that could go on as scheduled, be done via Facebook Live or even cancelled.
Walz said state officials will try and do their best to communicate updates to the public. “What the public needs is to get fact-based, science-based data from the public health officials and making sure that it is clear and coordinated.”
Information about coronavirus can be found on the Department of Health website.