Uneasy with Gov. Tim Walz's executive actions closing much of the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota Republicans are pushing for legislative approval of any federal funds that flow into the state in response to the coronavirus.
Facing a May 18 deadline to finish work during the regular legislative session, Republicans and some Democratic senators advanced a bill Monday that would require the House and Senate to sign off on spending some $2 billion in federal aid to respond to the virus.
The bill passed Monday in the GOP-controlled Senate, 42-25, with six Democrats joining all Republicans in favor. However the push faces slim prospects in the DFL-controlled House, whose leaders are largely allied with the governor on his spending priorities and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even without final approval by the Legislature, the debate over federal spending in the state is likely to carry into the fall elections, accentuating growing partisan differences over the timing and extent of Walz's stay-at-home orders.
The coronavirus money, part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, has been approved by Congress to help patch funding for cities, schools, hospitals, transportation systems, food production and other critical needs. Of Minnesota's share of federal funding, $317 million was automatically transferred to the state's two largest counties, Hennepin and Ramsey. The funding can also be used to reimburse $520 million in state funds already spent in response to the virus.
But some legislators want a say in how the rest of the money is doled out, even after they adjourn in May.
"The Legislature was created and elected to listen and react to the concerns of the public," said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, the author of the bill. "All these people that have been affected by COVID-19, they need a place to talk and voice their opinion."
Minnesota's Legislature is part time, but federal funding flows into the state year-round. When that happens after lawmakers adjourn, a group of six members known as the Legislative Advisory Commission can review and give their OK to federal grants.
Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans said the Legislative Advisory Commission already gives lawmakers a chance to review federal spending that requires flexibility in emergency situations such as COVID-19. "The current process does not prevent the Legislature from appropriating these federal dollars, and we support them in directing resources to meet community needs," he said. "However, by establishing a new state process, [this bill] presents a solution to a problem that does not exist under current law."
Rosen said the size of the federal response to COVID-19 goes far beyond what the commission is used to handling. Her bill is modeled after a long-ago bill lawmakers passed to provide oversight over hundreds of millions in federal funds sent to the state during the Great Recession.
But Democrats criticized the bill as an unnecessary layer of oversight when the federal government has already set conditions on how the money can be used.
Rosen's bill also would require lawmakers to come back into a special session every time they need to approve federal funding, a logistical challenge once they adjourn and return to their districts around the state. Only the governor can call them back into a special legislative session.
"I believe if we leave here May 18, and there's an emergency and money needs to be allocated right away, that it will take days or weeks — if not longer — to come together to an agreement before we come to a special session," said Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina. "Every time we've had a special session, it's not hours, it's not days, it's weeks and months before we come back here and it's an orchestrated event."
While there is no companion proposal in the DFL-led House, Republicans in the minority also have expressed concerns about what will happen after legislators go home for the year.
Since the pandemic hit Minnesota in March, Walz has twice declared a peacetime state of emergency, giving him broad authority to respond using executive action. He's closed down public schools, bars, restaurants and most other public spaces to respond to the virus, which has already infected thousands in the state and killed nearly 300.
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said the state constitution gives the Legislature, not the governor, the power to appropriate money.
"We've now had emergency powers that have exceeded any emergency powers that I can remember in history," she said. "To put all of that responsibility in one person, clearly, our Minnesota Constitution saw the separation of powers."
For some legislators, the bill feels like a repeat of the debate over federal election security funding through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which took all session for lawmakers to approve last year. Minnesota was the last state to approve the use of the election funding.
"I think if anything that argument has worked against my friends across the aisle," said Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview. "All I have to do is look to the way they handled the HAVA funding to know that I wouldn't want them anywhere near this federal funding to make sure it goes someplace relevant and helpful."