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COVID-19 relief bill takes on supplemental budget items, heads to the floor

House Photography file photo

Is a deal a deal? Is it a violation of a deal to add it to another deal?

Those questions roiled through Thursday morning’s House Ways and Means Committee meeting.

The controversy concerned two bills combined into one: An agreement on how to distribute federal COVID-19-related relief to cities and counties, and a collection of appropriations for human services, corrections and the financially threatened Minnesota Zoo, among other recipients.

The latter items were part of a supplemental budget request from Gov. Tim Walz, and it first came to light at Wednesday’s House floor session that they may be combined with a bill that had already passed the Senate: SSSF47. It would distribute funds from the federal coronavirus relief bill to the state’s cities and counties according to a formula devised by representatives from the House and Senate’s DFL and Republican caucuses.  

Despite the objections of Republicans, SSHF128/SSSF47* was amended with the supplementary budget items (also taking on two other amendments) and was approved by the committee on an 18-10 party-line vote. It now goes to the House Floor. Rep. Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth) and Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Vernon Center) are the sponsors.

Republicans say all four caucus leaders agreed on the standalone COVID-19 relief bill and it’s wrong to change an agreement.

“A deal was made between all four caucus leaders,” said Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston). “In my 28 years at the Legislature, I’ve never seen four caucuses agree on something, then have one caucus back out. You’d probably get a tremendous amount of support if you just ran this budget through by itself.”


Federal money for cities and counties

When the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was signed into law March 27, it contained a provision for aid to local units of government that set aside 45% of the funds for those with a population of 500,000 or more. Minnesota only had two units that qualified: Hennepin and Ramsey counties. The remaining 55% would go to the remaining counties, cities and towns, but the state needed to determine how to distribute that money.

The bill marks out those appropriations which -- thanks to new guidance from the federal government -- have grown to $841 million.

House Ways and Means Committee (Remote Hearing) 6/18/20

According to the formula, each county, city and town would receive a pool of money based upon a certain amount per resident. If you live in a city with a population between 200 and 4,999, that’s $25 per person. If your city population exceeds 5,000, it jumps to about $75.34 per person.

Then there’s county aid, which is a separate pot of money with a considerably more complex formula. But the per-capita distribution ranges from a high of $141.54 per person in Lake of the Woods County to a low of $121.28 in 13 different counties.

Does that mean that you’d get a check for that amount? No, the money goes to city and county governments for “necessary expenditures related to COVID-19.” They cannot replace funds already accounted for in the last budget, and must be incurred between March 1 and Dec. 31, 2020.

The U.S. Treasury Department suggests such uses as medical expenses, testing, tracing and facilitating compliance with COVID-related directives. But funds could also be used for economic support, such as workers’ compensation, facilitating the disposal of farm animals, helping with homelessness, and assisting businesses with interruptions due to COVID-19.


The supplemental budget

The primary amendment added to the bill has a list of appropriations Marquart defended as being complementary to the aid focus of the bill’s COVID-related core.

Totaling $152.3 million in appropriations, it contains these elements (with expenditures for fiscal year 2021, unless noted otherwise):

  • $38.1 million to the Department of Human Services for direct care and treatment, including community-based services, forensic services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and administration of the sex offender program;
  • $28.9 million for repayment of overpayments of federal funds to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and White Earth Band of Ojibwe for self-administered medication-assisted treatment (payments were based on incorrect information, and the tribes are required to repay the federal funds received);
  • $26.1 million for several personal care assistance provisions, including funding a 15% rate increase for direct support services and consumer support grants;
  • $17.3 million to the Department of Corrections for increased compensation costs, including overtime, increased funding for community services, and staffing for the process of early conditional release;
  • $13.9 million in fiscal 2020 for a onetime cash benefit of up to $500 for each household enrolled in the Minnesota Family Investment Program or the Diversionary Work Program;
  • $10.7 million to the Department of Natural Resources, primarily to address aquatic invasive species and fund legal costs;
  • $9.1 million to the state patrol;
  • $8.8 million to reimburse counties with institutions for mental disease for substance use disorder treatment services;
  • $6 million to the Minnesota Zoo;
  • $4.5 million for the testing and storage of sexual assault kits;
  • $4.2 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs for suicide prevention and housing vouchers; and
  • $3.7 to the Metropolitan Council for improving transit safety.

Amendments were approved to add $100,000 for a foster care study, and to create a $30 million emergency fund for local governments dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks.

The chief topic of discussion was whether it is appropriate to add to SF47.

Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) said, “If you’re a member of the House Republican caucus, how do we believe you guys? It completely defeats the purpose of negotiations.”

Marquart defended the combination.

“There’s not many bills that come out in special session,” he said. “A final legislative deal is never a deal until leadership all sign off on it. … We could have done a separate bill, but the Senate has unilaterally decided to end the session on Friday. That’s made us move more quickly and efficiently on things.”

The committee chair, Rep. Lyndon Carlson Sr. (DFL-Crystal), concurred.

“From the get-go, I could see a problem that the Senate was driving the timeline,” he said. “When they indicated that they were going to be adjourning on Friday, I could see that there were going to be a lot of things that needed to get done quickly. I was protective of the (city and county distribution) agreement, and that agreement is intact.”

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