Minnesota lawmakers taking extraordinary precautions to maintain social distancing voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve an additional $330 million to fight the coronavirus pandemic and help people and businesses struggling financially.
The emergency package followed earlier passage of two separate measures of $200 million and $21 million, bringing the state's total response to more than $550 million to slow the spread of COVID-19. Legislative leaders said more may be in the offing.
Details of the new aid package did not come to light until shortly before the House and Senate votes, following days of private talks among legislative leaders conducted mostly by telephone. Those negotiations produced a bill creating a $200 million COVID response fund that can be used to protect Minnesotans and maintain state agencies' operations. Child-care providers, food shelves and homeless services will receive additional assistance, and more money will be directed to small business programs, tribal nations and programs to help veterans weather the crisis.
The final bill, which passed the House 99-4 and the Senate 67-0, now heads to Gov. Tim Walz's desk for his signature. But even as lawmakers quickly approved the bill, they highlighted missing pieces and warned that more action will be needed to navigate the virus' continuing spread.
"We have a large amount of work to do; we just don't know what it is yet," said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. "We don't know what kind of recovery, economic and otherwise, we will need. We could anticipate another wave of the pandemic in the summer or fall. So we know very little about what the next 10 months look like."
Legislators described the bill as a quickly constructed compromise. Republican leaders said helping families and businesses now is critical, but the state must spend judiciously as unemployment skyrockets and the economy dips. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said that during negotiations he repeatedly asked: "Where is this money coming from?"
Democrats said several of their priorities were left undone, including pay for hourly school workers and housing assistance. And legislators on both sides of the aisle said the bill doesn't go far enough to help businesses and should have ensured that infected first responders are eligible for workers' compensation.
"This should have been a high priority," said Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth. "We should be taking care of the folks who are taking care of us."
The legislation was generally based on policy and spending requests from Walz, who asked for an additional $356 million to respond to the pandemic. That request came on top of the initial $200 million package to help health care providers. The House and Senate approved that money unanimously on March 17 before recessing.
House and Senate leaders announced then that they would largely suspend in-person activity to prevent the spread of the virus. At least one person who works at the Capitol has already contracted coronavirus and two legislators are self-quarantining following possible exposure, as is Walz.
The Legislature's recess is scheduled to extend at least until April 14. However, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said lawmakers could reconvene sooner if they agree on new measures.
"There will be a tremendous amount more pressure on everyone after landlords don't get paid on April 1, so my hope would be those negotiations would accelerate," she said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, called for more action in the weeks ahead to help small businesses and first responders, saying such issues "cannot be an area that we pass on moving forward."
Lawmakers changed their rules so they could vote on legislation remotely during the coronavirus emergency. Members entered the House and Senate chambers one by one and took seats spaced apart. Members rotated in and out for votes.
While lawmakers struck a bipartisan tone, some raised concerns about the short time afforded to review the 33-page bill. The bill was posted online for the public to review just minutes before the House met. Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said more thought was needed and raised questions with a provision dedicating $11 million to tribal nations. He was one of four House members who opposed the bill, along with Reps. Cal Bahr, Tim Miller and Jeremy Munson.
The legislation came together largely outside the public view. House lawmakers, for example, convened conference calls of groups small enough to avoid triggering open meeting requirements to hash out details of the bill.