Minnesotans have a chance at a $216 million COVID state relief package that could provide a measure of assistance as Congress remains gridlocked.
That funding is more necessary than ever as Minnesotans approach some crucial deadlines. Extended unemployment insurance will run out on Dec. 26. Pandemic unemployment assistance, which covers self-employed and contractors typically not eligible, expires even earlier — Dec. 19. Commissioner of Employment and Economic Development Steve Grove told an editorial writer that more than 100,000 workers would be affected across the state.
It is the extension of unemployment benefits, Grove said, that has been the sticking point in negotiations between Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, who were expected to continue talks in advance of Monday's special session.
Grove said there was "tentative agreement" on a $216 million package for businesses most affected by the virus and public health restrictions. That package is a needed bridge for the many small businesses, restaurants, bars, movie theaters, fitness centers and others dependent on foot traffic.
Businesses would get a combination of direct relief, based on provable drops in their revenue, and some state-administered grant funds. Counties would get about $100 million on a per capita basis to distribute to the neediest businesses in their areas.
Particularly in the absence of federal action, local businesses need the certainty that would come with such assistance, and the hope that it would provide a bridge to either federal aid or a vaccine that eases the pandemic.
But unemployed workers need that certainty and bridge just as much. They need more than the token "gap" extension of five weeks suggested recently by Minnesota Senate Republicans.
We know Republicans are loathe to run up the bill on unemployment insurance. The fact is, the state tapped out its UI trust fund in July, Grove said, and has been borrowing from the feds ever since, with a tab now approaching $50 million. Minnesota is not the only state in that situation. Grove said at least 20 others are doing the same thing, to keep the subsistence funds flowing to those out of work.
Hopefully the federal government will forgive at least some of that borrowing, given the extraordinary circumstances of a prolonged pandemic. But even if it doesn't, Minnesota needs to do what is possible for these workers, just as much as for businesses. It is in the state's interests to do so.
Every dollar put in the hands of those unemployed workers goes straight into the economy, in the form of groceries bought, bills paid. The alternative is letting the most vulnerable among us fall into an economic abyss, through no fault of their own.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman told an editorial writer Friday that she believed the two sides were close and that everyone was "negotiating in good faith." One element Hortman has been pushing for — and which should be included — is one-time cash assistance for the very low-income families on the Minnesota Family Investment Program. Hortman said the Legislature has only to give permission to access nearly $16 million in federal funds that could be used for the working poor. That permission should be granted.
"People are at peak pandemic exhaustion," Hortman said. "This is a time to bring a little bit of light and hope in people's lives. We still have to rely on the feds for the major part. But as a state we can provide some hope that we're going to make it through this dark period, whether you're a business, a worker or a family."