Legislators will continue to work with each other and the public, even as the House and Senate take increased precautionary measures to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“This is uncharted territory,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-East Gull Lake) said in a news conference Monday morning, while he and other leaders expressed their dedication keeping the public informed and engaged.
The House and Senate are both planning to pass a second COVID-19-related bill today to provide some sort of support for Minnesota’s hospitals, though an agreement has yet to be reached on whether the bill will provide grant funding as well as loans, he said. Both bodies convened at 11 a.m. before going into recess of indeterminate length.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) said that the respective health committee chairs — Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) and Sen. Michelle Benson (R-Ham Lake) — worked through the weekend and she is hopeful an agreement could be reached early in the day, allowing the House to pass the bill by early evening.
The Legislature’s Passover/Easter recess will be extended an additional two weeks to help “flatten the curve,” and make sure that the health care system isn’t overwhelmed, Gazelka said
The latest the Legislature will return is April 14, though he and Hortman can call back legislators earlier, if needed.
This time will be less of a “recess” than a break in regular operations to accommodate strict compliance with Department of Health recommendations for social distancing, which includes maintaining 6 feet of open space between people, Hortman said.
This has resulted in the dramatic reorganization of hearing rooms and arrangements on the House Floor to maintain enough space between members. This includes seating legislators in the alcoves and gallery as well as in rooms used for caucus meetings.
If someone in one of these areas wants to engage in a floor debate, they can exchange spaces with someone seated at a desk, after that person wipes it down and leaves the chamber.
“In some ways this will be a more intensive period of work for us,” Hortman said. “It is possible to continue our work and to do it safely.”
On Sunday, House leaders announced that how the House does business will change, for about the next month, with on-call committee meetings and floor sessions as well as a streamlined list of priorities.
The Legislature will focus on legislation related to the state’s response to COVID-19; “critical” bills, including a bonding bill; and issues with bipartisan agreement, Hortman said.
“This is what we need to do to make sure that we keep each other safe,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) said.
On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order declaring a peacetime emergency and urged the House and Senate to quickly put together a response package to the COVID-19 pandemic. Another executive order was issued Sunday authorizing a March 18-27 shutdown of K-12 schools so school officials can make long-term plans for the “continuity of education and essential services.”
For the latest House schedule, check out www.house.leg.state.mn.us/schedules.
More information about COVID-19 is available on the Department of Health website. A hotline is available at 651-201-3920 or 800-657-3903.