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Legislative deadline looms with agenda upended by COVID-19

By Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio News


When the legislative session convened in early February Minnesota had a healthy budget surplus, and lawmakers were looking at a light agenda.

Then came COVID-19. In the space of weeks, tens of thousands of Minnesotans have lost their jobs, the budget surplus is gone, and the legislative to-do list was upended.

“Most of what we’re focused on is COVID-19 or could be connected to COVID-19,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.

Senate Republicans abandoned a push to cut taxes on Social Security earnings, and Gazelka said now the focus now is on helping small business owners who are struggling to pay taxes.

“We can do a lot to delay those taxes and waive some of the penalties. So, they still pay them, but it will be later,” Gazelka said.

A bonding bill to fund public construction projects was the top priority this year for lawmakers before the health crisis consumed the agenda. The debate was also well underway on how big the borrowing package should be.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park,  said the argument for a big bonding bill and the construction jobs it would create, is even stronger now.

“There are two major concerns that Minnesotans have. One is their health and the second is their economic future. And what we can do to invest in their economic future is pass a bill that puts people to work,” Hortman said.

Back in January, DFL Gov. Tim Walz rolled out a bonding proposal that topped $2 billion.

Walz told city leaders last week that he does not expect to get everything he wants, but that public works bill remains a priority.

“My commitment to the bonding proposals and what I felt was a responsible and robust proposal has not changed,” Walz said recently. “In fact, my commitment to it is strengthened now. It makes absolute sense to view it as a stimulus act.”

Republicans have said for months that the governor’s plan is too big.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said he would prefer to stay around $1 billion. With a budget deficit looming due to closed businesses and high unemployment, Daudt said he is concerned about making the interest payments on bonding debt.

“If we don’t pay attention to that and take every action that we can now, we’re only going to make that problem worse next year when we deal with the budget,” Daudt said.

The peacetime emergency Walz declared to address the health crisis is scheduled to expire before the legislative session ends. Walz has handled much of the state response through a series of executive orders. If he wants to extend the emergency after the session adjourns on the May 18 deadline, he’ll have to call lawmakers back into a special session.

Minnesota, like other states, is relying on federal money to help pay for things related to COVID-19. Gazelka said he wants legislative oversight of that spending for the rest of the session and during any special sessions that might be needed.

“We think that there should be a cooperation of the legislative branch working with the governor, and not just the governor spending the way he thinks it should be spent,” Gazelka said.

House and Senate leaders have taken a bipartisan approach in recent weeks to address COVID-19 issues. But there are some highly partisan proposals coming up before the May 18 deadline to adjourn.

Hortman said the list in the House includes a DFL proposal to expand voting-by-mail options this year, which Republicans firmly oppose. Members of the House State Government Finance Committee on Monday approved the measure on a 10 to 7 vote.

Lawmakers will finish out the session under the safety procedures implemented amid the health crisis. Committee meetings will continue to be held remotely and members will still be spread out during floor sessions, with many wearing masks.

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, has been reminding her colleagues to follow the rules.

“We need people to respect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Health guidelines and practice the social distancing,” she said, “and sometimes that doesn’t always happen.”

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