ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers on Thursday, March 26, approved a $330 million COVID-19 emergency response bill, which included funding for child care providers, homeless shelters and food banks.
The proposal will bump back deadlines for renewing expired driver’s licenses, help house homeless individuals in hotels or motels temporarily if they’ve been exposed to the illness caused by the coronavirus or have respiratory conditions and provide each tribal nation in the state $1 million.
Lawmakers returned to the Capitol Thursday after recessing last week and moving to closed working group meetings in the House and conversations between committee chairs and the majority leader in the Senate. Gov. Tim Walz put to them a $356 million budget request to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic's impact in the state, which lawmakers said they considered and approved in part, along with ideas of their own.
Legislative leaders touted the action to pass emergency funding as a bipartisan success in the face of a growing pandemic. The Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday reported 346 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the state and a Ramsey County resident died of the illness, the second in the state to perish from the disease.
"Together we're all trying to defeat the COVID-19 virus and we're trying to make sure we don't kill the jobs and livelihood of all the people and businesses of Minnesota," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said. "It's a balance."
On a 99-4 vote, the House approved the measure, with the four members of the New House Republican caucus voting against it. In the Senate, members approved the bill on a 67-0 vote. A spokesman for Walz said he planned to sign it into law this week.
But they faced criticism from advocates of transparency, groups whose requests got dropped in secret meetings and lawmakers, predominantly in the minority of each chamber, who were surprised to see their priorities failed to make it into the final measure Thursday.
Senators ahead of a vote Thursday afternoon were surprised to see a proposal to provide up to $500 assistance per family on the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) wasn't in the omnibus bill despite negotiations a day prior in which it appeared it would be included.
Legislative leaders said they were forced to craft the bill quickly and in closed calls to address the urgent nature of the pandemic. And they said Minnesotans were more vocal in their responses than they are during most other circumstances.
“Our members have received more public input since March 13 than most of us have received in the past 3 years put together,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, told reporters. “Minnesotans definitely made their voice heard.”
Leaders said they would aim to work in more transparency moving forward and they said additional response bills were forthcoming.
The bill will provide $32 million in supports to help homeless individuals find temporary shelter in hotels or motels if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or have respiratory health issues, $30 million in grants to child care providers who remain open during the crisis, $9 million to support food banks, food shelves and drivers that move those food supplies around the state, and $6.2 million for veterans and their families.
The 11 tribal nations in Minnesota will each get $1 million from the state to help with individual emergency responses.
Those with drivers’ licenses set to expire can also breathe easy as they’ll get an extension before they’re required to renew them or risk facing a penalty if they drive on an expired license. Federal officials on Thursday also postponed REAL ID requirements through October of 2021.
Lawmakers in each chamber filed in one at a time and were spaced out in each chamber, with some seated in alcoves, galleries, adjoining rooms and in the Capitol rotunda to provide the recommended distance between each person.
And in the Senate, members in rooms adjacent relayed votes to staff in the chamber and those who wanted to speak waited their turn to walk onto the Senate floor. For the first time in state history, the Senate allowed members to record votes remotely.
As they left for the day, members were dismissed one-by-one to put enough space between them to limit the transmission of the illness. They are set to return April 14 or could back sooner if they reach agreements on additional response proposals in remote meetings.
First responders say they were left out of late-night negotiations
First responders took to the Capitol steps Thursday morning to voice their frustration with the Minnesota Legislature for skipping a proposal to cover the emergency workers under the state's workers' compensation program.
Firefighters, police officers, nurses, corrections workers and others working in public health said they would remain on the hook for the cost of their health care and sick leave if they contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, while on the front lines. And they turned their focus to Walz, asking him to issue an executive order covering them under the workers' compensation program.
"After what happened yesterday in the dark of night, I'm mad, I feel let down, I feel betrayed," Minnesota Professional Firefighters President Chris Parsons said. "First responders have been thrown into this battle totally undefended. We're being exposed, we're being quarantined, it's just a matter of time before we are sickened. First responders don't have the option to work from home."
Gazelka said he heard from the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Advisory Council opposed the plan, so he asked that it not be included in the larger bill.
“The fact that they did not support this led me to believe we should not be doing it," he said.
Forum News Service reporter Sarah Mearhoff contributed to this report.
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