The Minnesota Legislature was poised Monday to clear bills providing millions of dollars in aid to help state hospitals face the growing coronavirus pandemic even as lawmakers were forced to radically scale back operations at the State Capitol.
Drawing parallels to the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and acknowledging that the virus has hurled the Legislature into "uncharted territory," state Senate and House leaders agreed Monday to put off much of the two bodies' work until at least April 14.
The new measures at the Capitol came as Gov. Tim Walz ordered the temporary closing of bars, restaurants and other public places, a day after closing K-12 schools for a limited period. It also came as his administration received a new economic forecast predicting a U.S. recession beginning in the second quarter of this year.
"This announcement confirms what we have suspected: Deteriorating economic conditions caused by COVID-19 will stress Minnesota's economy," Walz said. "Doing the right thing to protect ourselves and one another — social distancing — is hard on our economy in the short run, but it will ultimately be the right thing for all of us. In these times of uncertainty, my Administration is working tirelessly to ensure our state is in the best position possible to weather whatever may come our way."
Amid mounting worries about the spread of the coronavirus, legislative leaders said they will hold committee meetings and floor sessions on an "on-call basis," working mainly to pass bills responding to the pandemic in ways that allow 6 feet between people in the Capitol.
A surreal scene unfolded as a small group of House members gaveled back into session Monday with representatives spaced at least one seat apart, with others cast out to nearby alcoves or galleries to keep a safe distance. Meetings with constituents can now only take place by appointment.
"We're working together — the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats — to find our way through this, but it is uncharted territory," said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, who insisted Monday that the plan still allows for lawmakers to conduct "important business" before the Legislature must adjourn by May 18.
Earlier Monday, Minnesota's macroeconomic consultant, IHS, took the unusual step of making an unscheduled economic forecast update to disclose that it expects a U.S. recession to start in the second quarter of this year and extend until the end of 2020.
Hours later Walz signed another executive order to strengthen Minnesota's Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and ensure that workers who are not able to work as a result of COVID-19 have benefits available.
In addition to upending the typical arc of a Minnesota Legislative session — to the extent one exists — the pandemic is also forcing the bodies to narrow their focus for the remainder of the session.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said such work will be concentrated in three "buckets" moving forward: the state's COVID-19 response, "mission critical" measures such as a bonding bill and any legislation that has bipartisan agreement.
"This is a time that is unlike any that we've experienced except for maybe 9/11," Hortman said. "And this one is so different in nature, because each of us have the possibility to really change the risk profile for the state of Minnesota by our own personal actions."
As the virus' spread extended to Minnesota, the Legislature's leadership — also including Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown — have sought to project a unified front. Speaking to reporters inside a spacious Senate committee room in lieu of the smaller Capitol news conference room, proclamations of "we're all in this together" were repeated by each.
"The Capitol itself is an interesting place, and people come here from every corner of the state," Daudt said. "So I would imagine if there's a case of COVID-19, it would be an epidemiologist's nightmare to track down all of the people that person came in touch with."
Gazelka and Hortman both said that the two bodies were also working through logistics of what the new arrangement means for workers contracted to be paid only while the session is underway. Hortman said session-only hourly employees whose work cannot be performed via telework will still be on the payroll through at least Friday.
"As you know, things changed pretty radically from Thursday afternoon until now, and so part of what we need to do is work through some of those logistics," Hortman said.
Gazelka said a price tag for the state hospital aid package had not yet been agreed upon as of Monday evening, but he said that hospitals were seeking $100 million.
"It was spoken very positively that they'll get it done [Monday]," Gazelka said, "but they don't have an agreement."