Andrea Peyla-Cossette returned home to Wabasha in February optimistic about the results of her first-ever advocacy trip to the State Capitol.
She had made the case to extend an exemption in the state's adult foster care rules. It would mean her two sisters with special needs could move closer to their family and continue living together, as they had for more than 30 years.
Then the coronavirus hit.
From social advocacy to corporate lobbying, the work of influencing lawmakers in person has been largely put on hold as the pandemic demands the Legislature's full attention and forces people to temporarily abandon the Capitol. While COVID-19 has forced a surge in online advocacy, the struggle to contain the virus has taken precedence over the anticipated legislative battles over guns, insulin, legal marijuana, building projects and other controversies that dominated the early days of the session.
The focus, instead, turned to Gov. Tim Walz's emergency orders temporarily closing schools and most public places, including many businesses that sought exemptions from the "stay-at-home" directive.
But the old needs have not disappeared.
Lawmakers passed a $330 million spending bill two weeks ago to respond to the outbreak and gathered again Tuesday to approve another COVID-19 related bill. Nearly every item on the agenda for those days was related to coronavirus.
Advocates and lobbyists expect lawmakers to act on noncoronavirus measures when the emergency passes, though nobody knows when that will be. Some are pushing for a special session after the regular adjournment of May 18. But House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she still anticipates passing policy measures unrelated to the virus during the current session.
"Anything where members can come to an agreement and a bill can pass the House and the Senate, that's the highest priority. So where people can work things out and we can get things done, there's no reason to not be able to do our normal workload," she said. Hortman added, however, that spending measures will be radically different from what was anticipated, as the state's projected $1.5 billion surplus is likely to be all but wiped out by the coronavirus and the damage it has wrought on the state economy.
It is also likely to change the contours of an expected partisan showdown over spending and taxes. The pandemic's spread dovetailed with what has typically been the most active time of year in the now-annual clash over gun laws.
Both gun safety advocates and Second Amendment activists scrapped lobbying days they had lined up at the Capitol. Hundreds of volunteers for the gun control group Minnesota Moms Demand Action scrambled to convert their yearly advocacy day into a digital event, and the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus is also looking at an online event instead.
With so much of the advocates' policy agenda at a standstill, some hope the Legislature might pass more policy measures than it typically would next year. During odd-numbered years, the governor and Legislature are focused on setting the next two-year budget, and often much of the policy work is left for even years. However, the makeup of the now-divided Legislature could look different in 2021, with all 201 members of the two chambers on the ballot this fall.
"Just because it didn't pass this year doesn't mean it's dead forever," lobbyist Mollie Clark said of the bills the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance was pushing this year. "We're hoping [in 2021] … that they would take a little more policy than they would otherwise, just because there's so much left on table."
Every Tuesday a sea of purple shirts shows up at the State Capitol to remind legislators of people living with traumatic brain injuries. This year advocates have been pushing for a law requiring sexual violence prevention training for residential program staff. But they canceled their in-person lobbying.
Still, Clark said, the pause for the coronavirus outbreak was needed. The bills can wait.
"I had a conversation with my mom one morning," Clark said. "And she was, like, 'I'm so sorry all your bills are dead.' "
Her response: "No, I'm proud Minnesota takes public health this seriously."
Her organization is now focused on the Department of Human Services' response to COVID-19, and making sure people with disabilities are not left behind, she said.
Jeff Forester, executive director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates, echoed Clark's sentiment.
"The COVID crisis really overshadows everything else. It's a human health issue, and it should," Forester said. He has halted his advocacy work, not wanting to take up legislators' time during the emergency. He previously felt good about the passage of a new boat-operators permit requirement.
"It was looking good," he said. "But in the grand scheme of things, it waits another year or it gets picked up this summer — or however the Legislature decides to navigate this — great."
Senators and representatives in both parties say they are hopeful that the Legislature will reconvene soon and turn to the measures they had been debating before COVID-19.
But the time frame to finish the work could be tight and usual deadlines need to be adjusted, said Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne.
"The process is going to get shortened up considerably," Weber said. "Between now and our constitutional deadline [May 18], we're going to have to be back a couple of times. But it probably won't be a full schedule by any stretch of the imagination."
For some, like Peyla-Cossette's sisters, a yearlong wait on a bill could have major implications. One sister just moved to a residence in Wabasha, where she and her elderly father live. The other is stuck an hour away in Rochester, because they cannot find another space for her.
Meanwhile, a fifth bed is empty in the Wabasha home where her sister moved. A state law exemption allowing properties to have more than the maximum capacity of four beds in certain situations sunsets in 2019.
The bill to extend that had bipartisan support. But for now, the family is out of luck.
"I can only hope that they will get back together," Peyla-Cossette said of the Legislature. "This is unfinished business that affects my sisters."
Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044