ST. PAUL — The Legislature briefly came to a standstill Friday, March 13, as lawmakers set a plan for how to continue its work in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Legislative leaders said that likely would require cutting away unessential legislation to focus on quickly passing a capital investment bill and preparations to mitigate the damage caused by COVID-19, the illness stemming from coronavirus.
The efforts come as state health officials on Friday announced the state had reported 14 cases of COVID-19 across eight counties, largely in the Twin Cities metro area, and called for the cancellation of gatherings of people more than 250 people. Gov. Tim Walz called a peacetime state of emergency to free up resources in the event the pandemic worsened significantly in Minnesota.
With a growing number of Minnesotans growing ill or going into quarantine over concern about exposure to the virus, lawmakers and state leaders said the Legislature should approve measures that could help workers stay home without worrying about the financial consequences and provide resources to health providers treating COVID-19.
And they said they should act quickly in the event the pandemic requires them to call a legislative hiatus or adjourn early.
"Each and every bill that is a priority this legislative session is on warp speed right now just in case we have to take a break," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said. "We want to do as much work as we can as fast as we can for the people of Minnesota."
Lawmakers canceled hearings and meetings at the Capitol on Friday and said they'd return Monday morning with tougher restrictions on who could enter the chambers and limitations on the number of people who could rally in the rotunda. But they declined to close down the Capitol, saying it was critical to allow Minnesotans to engage in policymaking.
While the first few months of the legislative session gave legislators a chance to consider hundreds of proposals and air their top partisan priorities despite their unlikely fates in the divided Legislature, leaders this week said they'd refocus moving forward on what they viewed as top priorities.
Unessential proposals fall away
Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said top priorities moving forward would include quickly passing a capital investment bill to fund local projects that could boost the economy and policies aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.
And other partisan priorities would have to be put on hold this year, they said.
"We're not going to be focused on new policies at this point, just moving forward with what we need to do right now," Gazelka said, noting that funding to combat the coronavirus would be key for Republicans. "It's getting the dollars that we need into the system and getting the bills done that we need to get done."
The Legislature last week approved and the governor on Monday signed into law a $20.9 million appropriation to fund COVID-19 prevention and treatment efforts at the Department of Health. And Walz on Friday called on the Legislature to free up additional funds to address the disease as well as new resources and protections for those who may contract it or have to go into quarantine after potential exposure.
Lawmakers had already set about moving similar plans this week and were expected to take them up Monday.
Three other top concerns for legislative leaders got pushed through this week or were on their way to getting finished in a matter of days. Lawmakers sent to Walz's desk this week $50 million in funding support farmers through the Rural Finance Authority and $30 million for the Disaster Assistance Contingency Account.
And setting up a pathway for low-income or uninsured people to get access to emergency insulin, another top priority for legislative leaders, also took a step forward this week. The Minnesota Senate unanimously approved a plan to require manufacturers to supply the hormone or face fines. The proposal moves now to a conference committee where members of the House and Senate will try to iron out differences between two versions of the bill.
End-of-session deal becomes clearer
With an unclear picture for what might lie ahead for the remainder of the legislative session, legislative leaders said they'd expedite a bonding bill, one of the top priorities for the non-budget year session. And legislative leaders signaled what would have to be included to cut a deal over that in the divided Legislature.
Republicans who control the Senate said the compromise for a larger bonding bill would have to come with tax relief. Democrats, meanwhile, said they remained reluctant on Republicans' proposed tax exemption for Social Security across income levels.
"We think that rather than put that all back into the economy that way, we think we should do some tax relief into the economy instead," Gazelka told reporters.
Democrats, who control the House, have said they're open to a tax bill and would seek to conform a part of state tax codes called Section 179 to federal code, closing a loophole that has caused unexpected costs for farmers and small businesses. And while they wouldn't jump at as big a social security exemption as Republicans wanted, they said they'd consider the exemption for some.