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House DFL leaders map out 2020 session's road forward

House Speaker Melissa Hortman (middle) and Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (left) talk with Minority Leader Kurt Daudt during an early March floor session. House Photography file photo

A committee-centric week is expected to lead to focus on the House Floor next week.

So said the top two House DFL leaders Tuesday morning.

“There’s really fantastic work going on [in committees and divisions] and it’s really setting the stage next week for a big week on the floor,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) said during a remote media availability Tuesday.

It’s been six weeks since House committees, divisions and subcommittees started meeting remotely, but Hortman said that hasn’t stopped them from getting “our priority bills teed up for floor action.”

She said those priorities include:

  • ensuring hourly school employees are paid during the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • guaranteeing students have the resources to succeed by distance learning;
  • $100 million for housing assistance;
  • a 15% raise for personal care attendants through the pandemic;
  • making sure elections are safe by appropriating federal Help America Vote Act dollars;
  • ratifying already-negotiated contracts for state employees; and
  • providing assistance for small- and minority-owned businesses.

“The priorities the Speaker outlined are essential to Minnesota’s ability to successfully come through the COVID-19 crisis and rebuild a Minnesota that works for all of us afterwards,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley). “… We really are in a situation in which people’s basic economic security, their basic health security, are the thing that we most need to protect in the pandemic, save lives now, but also to make sure that we are ready to come back economically afterwards.”

On a 42-25 vote, the Senate passed SF4486 Monday that would put federal coronavirus funding into an account at Minnesota Management and Budget, but the money could only be spent with legislative approval. Minnesota has received roughly $2 billion in aid thus far. A legislative advisory committee now provides input for spending those dollars.

[WATCH: Video of Tuesday's news conference]

Bill supporters, in part, say elected officials should be tasked with how the money is spent; opponent arguments include timeliness concerns, such as the sudden need to help pork producers dispose of euthanized animals.

That bill has no House companion, and isn’t likely to move in the body anyway.

“[The Walz administration] has consulted with the Legislature on all of the spending they have done related to COVID-19 and I expect that will continue,” Hortman said. “What the Minnesota Senate is talking about is creating kind of a cumbersome process whereby we have double approval, and I don’t think that necessarily moves the ball forward for Minnesotans.”

Here a few of the other areas Hortman and Winkler touched on:


Bonding update

Hortman: “I will say all the conversations so far have been positive. I know the Senate GOP’s opening gambit is around $750 million and our opening gambit was $3.5 billion. … This is a time to invest in Minnesota in our local communities and to create jobs. This is exactly the kind of economic stimulus that will help Minnesotans to recover after the pandemic kind of winds down. I’m hopeful we’ll have a robust and healthy bonding bill.”

When will it be unveiled?

Hortman: “There’s really no reason to start the higher-level negotiations on the number for the bonding bill, and what other trades might end getting associated with that, until the end of next week. We need to find out how much money the state of Minnesota has; we need to look at the cash-flow projections for the future. Once we get that, then we’ll settle in on a number and then things move pretty quickly in bonding. But all the preliminary work that needs to be done in terms of studying spreadsheets with our friends in the Republican and Senate caucuses is happening right now.”


Relief for livestock producers hurt by processing plant closures

Hortman: “We’re ready to do what needs to be done, but really the first course of action there is the federal government.”

Winkler: “In our earlier COVID-19 bill, we did expand the emergency definition for agriculture relief to include pandemics so our existing emergency agriculture support programs are available. Whether that is adequate is probably a very different question, but we did create the structure for moving funding through our existing programs.”


Voting by mail in 2020

Approved Monday by the House State Government Finance Division, on a mostly party-line vote, HF1603 would allow all Minnesota voters to vote by mail in the 2020 primary and general elections. A separate bill, HF3499, contains the OK for the state to receive federal funds to better administer and secure elections.

Hortman: “We believe voters deserve a safe option to vote. We can have a perfectly safe, mail-in election. We know that the Republicans are fiercely opposed to that and we are not going to entangle important conversations about getting federal dollars to secure state elections with that more ideological discussion about vote by mail, but we are absolutely committed to providing the vote-by-mail option for Minnesotans so we can have a safe election.” 

Both bills are scheduled Wednesday before the House Ways and Means Committee.


State employee contracts

Also before the committee Wednesday is HF2768, which would ratify professional and technical service contracts with the state during the biennium ending June 30, 2021. According to a summary: “Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) estimates that the increased costs of all collective bargaining agreements and plans will be 4.8% in this biennium, with an impact of 8.17% on the next biennium.”

The contracts were negotiated last summer, but the Legislature must sign off for them to take effect.

Hortman: “The labor unions and the executive branch bargain over those contracts … and the Legislature’s job is simply to approve or deny. We will have to ask a question about state government expenditures going forward, but that is something we’ll be doing in the future. This is looking backward activity. We are, like the leaders before us, working very hard to make sure that this is not a partisan exercise.”

Winkler: “We’re talking about nurses, we’re talking about epidemiologists at our Department of Health, we’re talking about a whole range of Minnesotans providing essential services to their fellow Minnesotans. The first action we should take in an economic crisis shouldn’t be to cut essential services and to eliminate the basic economic security of the people we’re asking to step in to serve all of us in this situation.”


Upcoming floor schedule

Hortman: “We anticipate being in Thursday at 9 a.m. Next week we know for sure that we’ll be in on Monday. If possible, we’ll be in several days next week.”


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