ST. PAUL — It was a first day unlike any other at the Capitol as the Minnesota Legislature kicked off the 2021 session Tuesday, Jan. 5.
The chatter and excitement around the Capitol was replaced by near silence. Family members or friends who would typically fill the House and Senate floors or crowd the galleries were asked to tune in remotely as attendance was strictly limited to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
While some turned in their election certificates and took the oath of office in a nearly empty Capitol building, dozens said, "I do," to their legislative responsibilities over Zoom and their images were projected onto a screen in the chamber.
Of those who attended the first day of session on Capitol grounds, a handful of lawmakers opted not to wear face masks, despite clear guidance from public health professionals and legislative leaders. In the Senate, lawmakers took a moment of silence to reflect on the death of Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, who died of COVID-19 in December.
Sen. Matt Klein, D-Mendota Heights, who is a doctor, said on the floor that it was a sign of disrespect to colleagues and legislative staffers to forgo a face mask as the pandemic continues to rage.
"Not only does it create risk for our neighbors, but it sets a bad example of leadership in an area where easy and good leadership would be so simple to do," he said. "A mask on the face, showing our constituents that this is serious."
The pandemic loomed large over the events and over conversations about how lawmakers should spend the next five months in legislative session. They'll be constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget despite projections that show the state is expecting a sizable hole. And Minnesotans have called on elected officials to help the state weather COVID-19 and its repercussions at all levels.
Legislative leaders welcomed a historically diverse class of lawmakers with sober assessments of the work that lie ahead of them. And they pleaded for bipartisanship after a divisive election season.
"While last biennium started as a very festive day, this day is more somber. Because of the pandemic, we are facing some of the greatest public policy challenges any of us could imagine in our lifetimes," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said. "We are in the middle of a pandemic that can be a time to unify, but has so far divided us... Together we can build a Minnesota that's better for everyone."
Lawmakers at all levels said they entered office at a dire time as the state continued to battle the coronavirus in the state and as the state faced a $1.3 billion hole in the budget set to start July 1. And they committed to making their best efforts to bridge gaps between political parties.
“As we move forward, without a doubt we’re going to have those fights... I’m just asking everyone to help each other to get to where we need to go at the finish line and that is to pass a two-year balanced budget that works for Minnesota," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said. “It’s not going to be easy, members, but I am very hopeful for what we are about to do for Minnesota as long as we’re working together."
But despite the friendly messages on the Legislature's first day, political fissures appeared as lawmakers disagreed about the best path forward in addressing the pandemic and deciding how the state should dole out nearly $50 billion on a two-year spending plan.
Republicans in the House sought to pass a resolution bringing to the table an option to end the state's peacetime emergency for COVID-19 and, in turn, Gov. Tim Walz's emergency powers.
“I can think of no greater way of unifying a Democrat-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate than by reinstating and reasserting the Legislature’s constitutional role in our government by ending the emergency powers,” Rep. Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee, said.
The House on a party-line vote blocked the resolution on procedural grounds with Republicans supporting its passage. And GOP leaders said they'd continue to press for new guidelines that gave them a stronger voice in crafting pandemic response policy.
The powers have allowed Walz to place broad restrictions on businesses, social gatherings and other sectors of public life since March. They've also allowed the state to quickly build up testing capacity, set a moratorium on evictions and deploy the Minnesota National Guard. Walz has said he'll continue extending the peacetime emergency to respond to the pandemic.
A series of firsts
2021’s session will make history beyond the coronavirus pandemic: A record 72 women will be serving in the Legislature, making up about 36% of the body. Though that is still proportionally fewer women than Minnesota’s population, it breaks the Legislature’s previous record of 71 female legislators in 2007.
Sen. Mary Kunesh, D-New Brighton, who previously served in the state House, is the first Native woman to serve in the state Senate. Sen. Omar Fateh, D-Minneapolis, is the chamber’s first Somali-American to assume office. On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Chanhassen, is the youngest woman elected to the Senate in history at 28 years old.
And making history, Rep. Mary Murphy, D-Hermantown, became the second-longest serving legislator in the Capitol's history. When she first assumed office in 1977, there were only 13 women in the legislature.
In a Tuesday news conference, Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said that “such diversity also brings strength through a range of views.”
“It’s really worth acknowledging we continue to better reflect the people of MN as we do their work,” she said. “These talented and dedicated individuals bring a truly diverse collection of experiences and perspectives.”