Minnesota legislators are at an impasse over how to divvy up $250 million in aid to workers on the front lines of the pandemic, failing to agree on a single plan on Wednesday after months of gridlock.
A legislative working group voted to send two different plans to the full House and Senate, one backed by Republicans that would provide checks to those who worked directly with COVID-19 patients and long-term care residents, and another supported by Democrats that would touch a broader group of essential workers.
The failure to get behind one recommendation means the debate will spill over into the regular legislative session in January, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers waiting for the aid through the holiday season.
"If legislators performed like front-line workers, we would be done with this today," DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said in a news conference after the vote. "If front-line workers performed like legislators, Minnesotans would be in terrible shape."
Senate Republican members of the working group said state law allowed the group to send a single plan or up to three recommendations to the full Legislature.
"We did get the work done today," said Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater. "This money was supposed to be a thank you to those who had direct contact with COVID."
Both plans target applicants who continued to go to work in person during the pandemic, but Republicans in control of the Senate favor narrow eligibility for nurses, long-term care providers and first responders who had direct exposure to COVID-19 patients or residents. Each worker would receive a $1,200 check under the Republican plan.
"Our proposal focused on those who had the highest risk of exposure," said Housley.
Democrats' plan expands eligibility to include applicants who didn't work with patients, but whose jobs exposed them to COVID-19 nevertheless, including school staff, child care workers and food service and retail employees. That group of 667,000 workers would each get a $375 check.
"We've been caring for the children of other essential workers so the health care workers could make their shifts, grocery store workers could stock the shelves, couriers could deliver much needed supplies," said Krissy Dvorak, a child care worker in Eagan who joined the Democrats' news conference after the vote. "We all reported to work."
Democrats on the working group offered a third option Wednesday, which would split front-line workers and essential workers into two groups and give roughly $612 to a smaller group of health care staff and $300 to a larger pool of essential workers.
Republicans on the working group didn't agree to the plan but suggested it could be an option sent to the full Legislature. Democrats declined, accusing Republicans of failing to compromise.
"That offer was rejected, plain and simple," said Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope. "What we have going now is our positions, our strong positions. One position excludes tens of thousands of workers."
Gov. Tim Walz and the full Legislature agreed to the $250 million in aid last session as part of a deal on the state budget. The working group was tasked with finalizing their recommendations by Labor Day, after which the full Legislature would meet in special session to approve a plan.
But other complications arose in calling a special session, including a threat from Senate Republicans to take up the confirmation of Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm if they returned to St. Paul. Housley said Wednesday that the Senate would not give up its constitutional authority to take up the appointment of commissioners.
The full Legislature is set to reconvene on Jan. 31, 2022.