Under different circumstances, the State Office Building would have a flurry of activity, with dozens and dozens of bills being heard and acted upon in anticipation of the first committee deadline this Friday.
Instead, public activity has ceased and the Capitol Complex is quiet in response to the spreading coronavirus pandemic. To date, 37 days into the 2020 legislative session, five bills have made it across the finish line, while several other high priorities are left in limbo. The session must end by May 18.
What has been done?
So far, lawmakers have passed a couple of big items, including a law that provides $50 million in funding for the Rural Finance Authority. The program provides loans to farmers to weather through tough financial times or invest in improvements.
The state’s Disaster Contingency Account also received a boost with a $30 million appropriation in fiscal year 2020, to provide immediate funding to cities, counties, townships and tribal governments to help cover the cost of natural disasters.
Most notably, however, were a pair of significant spending packages aimed at combating the COVID-19 public health crisis.
On March 9, lawmakers passed a $20.9 million appropriation for the state’s public health response contingency account to be used for staffing, laboratory costs, protective equipment and support for local and public health officials.
Then, as cases within the state increased, legislators passed a subsequent law early Tuesday, appropriating $200 million toward the effort to address the pandemic. It was signed by Gov. Tim Walz later in the day.
“This bill is ... truly urgent,” Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) said before the House Floor vote. “We are potentially in a very dire situation.”
House, Senate on hiatus
After the early-morning vote, how lawmakers do business has changed.
In a Sunday statement, leaders said, “Over the next few weeks, the Minnesota Legislature will continue to work, but by alternative means. … While it’s important that we remain in session to swiftly respond to the needs of Minnesotans at this time, we will fully comply with Minnesota Department of Health guidelines including social distancing, limiting large gatherings, telework, and increased cleaning measures.
“The Legislative bodies and committees will meet in floor and committee session on an on-call basis from March 16 through April 14. This means there will not be standing floor and committee meetings, but we will meet on the House and Senate floors and in committees with advance notice to members and to the public. All meetings will be held in spaces that allow six feet of distance between individuals. We will implement telework arrangements for legislative employees where it is possible to do so. We encourage Minnesotans to continue to reach out to their legislators by email, telephone and mail during this period while we are operating via alternate means. We intend to take up legislation on the House and Senate floors during this time period only by agreement of the House DFL, House GOP, Senate DFL and Senate GOP caucus leaders.”
As of now, nothing is scheduled until an April 14 floor session in the House Chamber. For the latest House schedule, check out www.house.leg.state.mn.us/schedules.
Most House employees have been instructed to work remotely, and access to the State Office Building is now restricted to members, staff and other building tenants with an active keycard required for entrance. Other individuals entering the building need to be escorted by building tenants while in the building.
However, access will be provided in the event of a public meeting.
Gov. Tim Walz announced Tuesday that his State of the State address, scheduled for March 23, will be postponed. In a letter to legislative leaders, the governor said he plans to give the address, via video, at a later date.
Walz took independent action on a number of COVID-19-related items, delivering an executive order to cancel K-12 schools from March 18-27 and announcing an executive order to temporarily close bars, restaurants, and a variety of other venues where people congregate from March 17 through at least March 27.
In a statement, House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) applauded the move saying: "The decisions made by Governor Walz today are in the best interest of Minnesotans. Social distancing and drastically limiting the size of crowds are critically important to slowing the spread of COVID-19.”
To help cushion the economic blow, an executive order altered the state’s unemployment insurance requirements, making it available for workers unable to work as a result of the pandemic.
What’s left to do?
When the session kicked off, DFL leaders laid out a list of priorities that included additional funding for child care and early childhood programs, paid sick and safe time policies and legislation to address gun violence.
Republicans have emphasized the need for tax relief, saying that that some of the state’s $1.5 billion surplus should go toward refunds.
While the two parties differ on a number of issues, leaders have said they agree on a path forward.
During a news conference with legislative leaders Monday, Hortman said lawmakers will focus on three types of proposals during the remainder of this session: bonding, COVID-19 related, and bills that have strong bipartisan support.
That may be easier said than done, however.
While there’s agreement on the need to pass a bonding bill, the DFL, Republicans and Walz have very different figures in mind. Republicans have indicated they’d prefer it to be less than $1 billion, while the DFL has suggested they would prefer it to be as much as $3.5 billion. Walz’s preferences falls in between, with a $2 billion recommendation.
Additionally, there’s agreement that the high-profile insulin affordability proposal, the Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act, is a priority. It has cleared both chambers, but there are differences between the House and Senate versions that will need to be worked out in conference committee.