There was not the usual crowd of family members standing shoulder-to-shoulder with representatives on the House floor to celebrate the first day of session. Throngs of activists didn't rally at the Minnesota Capitol in matching shirts to remind legislators of their causes.

As the Legislature kicked off the 2021 regular session Tuesday, it was clear the COVID-19 pandemic would not only shape policymaking, but also basic operations over the next 4½ months.

Legislators were sworn in virtually or in small socially distant groups on the House and Senate floor, with the majority wearing masks. The Capitol is fenced off to the public, so advocacy groups made their cases via Zoom or e-mails.

"This place is about relationships," said Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park. "If you're not able to have those connections there are so many obstacles and barriers to doing the job."

In some ways, Tuesday's action felt routine. Lawmakers have met monthly — some tuning in remotely and a limited number gathering in person — since the last regular session ended in May. The continued discussions centered on COVID-19 and state government's pandemic response.

Legislators will tackle a broader set of issues this winter and spring, and the political dynamics at the Capitol could shift as new members take office. The top priority is to set the state's two-year budget, but other items on the list include educational disparities and the once-per-decade need to redraw congressional and legislative district lines.

Nonetheless, the overriding theme will remain the same as it has since the spring: How do they keep Minnesotans healthy and support the economy during the worst pandemic in a century?

Even under the strained physical limitations of the 2021 session, the pandemic has intensified the urgency of this year's work, said Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.

"I don't know how we go through this session without that front and center," said Murphy, who spent more than a decade in the House and is now returning to the Legislature for another stint. "We have so much work to do to end the crisis, heal us up and to build for our future."

The pandemic has completely changed the Legislature's day-to-day operations, but the political composition of state leadership is the same, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said in a Zoom news conference before the start of session.

"In some ways, you've seen this movie before. The players haven't changed," she said.

Democratic Gov. Tim Walz is still at the helm, and in the November election the DFL retained control of the House and Republicans kept a narrow majority in the Senate. Democrats' margin of control in the House shrank to six people, and the Senate is closely divided with 34 Republicans, 31 Democrats and a new two-person independent caucus, whose members formerly caucused with the DFL.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said their priority is passing a balanced budget that works for the state.

"It is not easy, members, but I'm very hopeful for what we're about to do as long as we're willing to work together," he said.

The immediate budget pressure was lifted last month when the projection for the current budget cycle, which ends June 30, showed a $641 million surplus. But the divided Legislature will have to close a predicted deficit of nearly $1.3 billion in 2022 and 2023.

Republicans have said Minnesota needs to cut state spending and not raise taxes, while Hortman stressed that Democrats don't want to cut programs and said some people are not "paying their fair share" in taxes. New Senate Democrats also said they want to spend more on priorities such as paid family and medical leave, and support for students and schools during and after the pandemic.

In a positive sign for budget negotiations, state legislators and Walz have been able to strike a couple of deals on economic assistance packages during the pandemic. But they remain divided over the mechanics of COVID-19 decisionmaking, a debate likely to play out throughout the session.

Walz has used emergency powers to make executive decisions during the pandemic. GOP legislators have opposed many of his choices and, along with a small number of Democrats, have tried to end that power for months.

The more narrowly divided House had its first skirmish Tuesday over emergency powers. Rep. Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee, brought a motion to vote to end the state of emergency. Democrats defeated the attempts to vote on the governor's powers in a party-line vote.

Both the House and Senate would have to vote to end Walz's emergency powers.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, stressed Tuesday that Walz's powers should be replaced with a framework that gives legislators control over decisions such as business closures. But Hortman said she believes the House will continue to uphold Walz's ability to use the powers. However, she said they could modify some orders.

She predicted they would change Walz's eviction moratorium to make it easier for landlords to remove problematic tenants. Now that the Legislature is in session, it has more say over the use of federal COVID-19 stimulus funds; Hortman said Senate Republicans might not agree to distribute money for rental assistance unless Democrats agree to the landlord change.

Hortman said there could be other areas tied to those federal dollars that could result in changes to executive orders.

Lawmakers clashed Tuesday over mask-wearing, as a number of Republican legislators refused to wear face coverings at the Capitol. Sen. Matt Klein, who is a physician, said the choice not to wear masks is "bad leadership" and "a sign of disrespect."

Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, reminded colleagues that the late Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, died of complications related to COVID after an outbreak that involved several Republican legislators in November.

While much of the Legislature's opening day was unusual, there was some of the familiar political maneuvering that accompanies any session.

In the Senate, Republicans picked Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, as temporary president of the chamber. The strategy was designed to prevent a scenario where, if President-elect Joe Biden appointed U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to his Cabinet, the political dominoes could fall in a way where a GOP Senate president would be removed to fill the lieutenant governor's job. That in turn would threaten Republicans' narrow Senate majority.

"Members," Tomassoni said as he took the dais, "the 2021 COVID adventure begins."

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042