ST. PAUL — The coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the 2020 Minnesota legislative session, forcing lawmakers to prioritize response plans and cast aside partisan priorities that would typically fill up time in the divided Legislature.
After taking a recess earlier this year as COVID-19 sickened thousands and killed hundreds in the state, lawmakers returned to the Capitol on a limited basis and shifted hearings online. Adapting to a new normal, they picked up pandemic-related legislation and business they had prior to the onset of the disease in Minnesota.
Now, with a week left to finish their work, lawmakers will decide the next round of aid for Minnesotans affected by the coronavirus and the orders issued to curb it will be hashed out and write their role in influencing spending and executive action around the pandemic.
They'll make decisions about how to fill a hole in the state's two-year budget and pass a variety of policy and spending plans unrelated to COVID-19.
And, if politics about executive power don't get in the way, they'll approve state borrowing to fund a slate of local construction projects.
With the clock is running down on the 2020 legislative session, here are some of the biggest questions about what's on the horizon.
Will they put more money toward COVID-19 response?
Gov. Tim Walz on Friday asked lawmakers to extend the timeline for a state COVID-19 response fund that had previously contained $200 million. There was $65 million left in the fund as of Friday that could only be used through Monday, May 11, without legislative intervention.
The governor said the state would need more money to pay for purchases related to containing the pandemic and more time to assess the damage the illness inflicted in the state and plan for further containment and treatment strategies.
Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, were quick to support the measure and said they would approve it. Republicans, meanwhile, didn't immediately issue a response.
Will there be strings attached?
Republican lawmakers have brought forth, and in the Senate approved, legislation requiring more legislative oversight over purchases made through the fund. And while legislative leaders said they support continuing the emergency fund and topping off its total, they indicated more measures to allow lawmakers to sign off on or veto potential purchases would be needed.
Walz has said he's open to additional legislative oversight but said bringing in the entire Legislature to approve emergency spending could slow state actions, which could cost lives.
Will there be a bonding bill?
Maybe. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has said his caucus would derail a plan for public construction projects if the governor extends his enhanced executive authority under the state's peacetime emergency.
The minority parties in each chamber hold a special role in bonding discussions as their votes are required to meet a higher threshold to pass borrowing proposals. And Daudt said he would ask that Walz end his emergency powers Wednesday when they are set to expire as a condition of moving a bill.
“We as a Legislature need to be ready to step up to cogovern with him to keep Minnesotans safe during this pandemic,” Daudt said Saturday.
The House Capital Investment Division on Saturday set up a contingency plan in case a plan for public projects gets foiled by politics. The panel advanced a proposal to approve borrowing to build affordable housing.
And House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said Democrats were preparing several options in the event Daudt followed through on his requirements. She said the minority leader's position was "problematic."
“We are definitely preparing contingencies and we are having conversations,” Hortman told reporters on Saturday morning.
Senate leaders from both parties have said they hope to move forward with a bonding bill.
How will they fill a $2.4 billion budget hole?
State budget officials last week gave an update on Minnesota's finances revealing the pandemic and state steps to curb it took a $4 billion bite out of the projected state budget. Revenues came in $3.6 billion lower than projected in February and state spending to counter the disease's hit was $391 million above what economists forecast, leaving a $2.4 billion hole.
The presentation opened up the option for Walz to tap state rainy day funds, which stood at around $2.3 billion. But Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans said lawmakers and the governor should tap the fund but not drain it as the pandemic could require more rainy day money down the road.
Walz said he was preparing budget plans that involved cuts and had already reduced top administrators' salaries by 10% and cut off nonessential hiring. And he said the state would continue asking the federal government for help since Congress can rack up a budget deficit while the state has to balance its budget.
As the lawmakers take up state employee contracts this week, they could also vote to reject new contracts for state employees that include raises negotiated prior to the pandemic. Democrats have said the raises should be approved since they were negotiated in good faith and state workers in many areas are working harder due to the pandemic.
Republicans, meanwhile, have said current contracts should stand and the state should try to find places to cut costs anywhere it can.
"I am suggesting that the governor and his team have a conversation about renegotiating that," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said. "If we approved them, there's another raise that comes July 1 and I just don't think it's the right time for that."
What does the round of COVID-19 aid look like?
The House of Representatives has teed up a $208 million package last week with funding for housing assistance for those struggling to make rent or mortgage payments due to the pandemic, small business loans, broadband expansion and a pay raise for personal care attendants.
The state would be reimbursed for the spending through the federal CARES Act, Democratic leaders said. And Hortman said she hoped passing the plans of the House floor would provide a "nudge" to Republicans in the Senate to greenlight the bills.
“We’re really focused on economic security for Minnesotans, we were before the pandemic and we remain keenly focused on that through the pandemic,” Hortman said.
House Democrats on Saturday also approved a $500 boost payments for those on the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) despite GOP concerns that the state couldn't afford it. The plan was left out of a previous round of COVID-19 aid and Republicans in the Senate have said they support it but a Senate companion bill had not been filed as of Saturday.
The Senate has also taken up and advanced measures aimed at boosting funding for housing assistance and expanding broadband for telehealth and distance learning, but those measures have different price tags and details that would require negotiations to even out differences.
Republicans in the Minnesota Senate also brought forth and passed a tax plan aimed at providing relief for business owners and individuals. The plan would delay or waive tax payments and provide additional tax credits for charitable contributions and families with children.
Lawmakers are set to resume legislative activity Monday and will have until May 18 to wrap up their business.