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MN Capitol Notebook: Coronavirus, disaster funding fast-tracked in the face of pandemic

Lawmakers also took up gaps in academic achievement and a plan to fund paid family leave for state employees.

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Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Monday, March 2, 2020, discussed the state's plans to move forward with testing suspected cases of COVID-19, the illness stemming from the coronavirus, at state health labs. Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders said they would support the department's efforts to contain and treat the illness if it reached Minnesota. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — Ahead of the anticipated appearance of coronavirus in Minnesota, state health officials and lawmakers this week laid the groundwork for a state response in anticipation of the virus spreading across the country.

And within days their efforts proved necessary as the Department of Health on Friday reported the first positive case of COVID-19 in Ramsey County.

In-state testing, which started earlier in the week, proved key to quickly detecting the illness in the resident who'd contracted the virus while on a cruise and sending that person to isolation to prevent the virus' spread. And lawmakers in the wake of that announcement committed to pressing forth with their efforts to advance emergency funding early next week.

The conversation over expected self-quarantines permeated the discussion about granting all employees in the state a certain amount of paid time off to help family or take medical leave. And while the proposal moved through the House, it appeared unlikely to gain traction in the Senate.

Meanwhile, ongoing inequities in education fueled a day-long conversation at the Capitol on Friday, as lawmakers weighed the best options to break down barriers to quality education.

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Here's a look at what happened this week in the Minnesota Legislature.

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Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, left, discusses how the state is preparing for COVID-19, the coronavirus sweeping the globe, during a news conference with Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders at the State Capitol in St. Paul on Monday, March 2, 2020. Christopher Magan / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Minnesota health officials on Thursday asked lawmakers for $25.5 million in emergency funding to pay for coronavirus staffing, testing and containment in the state. And lawmakers in both chambers were quick to take up those requests and start passing appropriation bills aimed at freeing up funds for the Department of Health.

The department requested $20.9 million in new funds from the Legislature in addition to $4.6 million to be accessed from a public health emergency fund. The Senate Finance Committee advanced a bill to appropriate the $21 million to fund coronavirus-related response and treatment efforts on a voice vote Thursday. And Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said the funding is one of lawmakers' top bipartisan priorities and committed to pass the proposal on the Senate floor Monday.

“I’ve notified both the House and the Governor that the Senate will convene on Monday morning to pass $20.9 million in funding for the Public Health Response Contingency account," Gazelka said in a statement. "We are working to move this bill quickly to provide care for those who will need it."

Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said they'd both push to get the coronavirus response funding as well as $50 million in Rural Finance Authority funds and $30 million in funding to the state Disaster Assistance Contingency Account to the governor's desk as quickly as possible.

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Dr. Deborah Birx, left, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, Vice President Mike Pence and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz meet at 3M company headquarters Thursday, March 5, in Maplewood, Minn. Peter Cox | MPR News

Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday visited 3M's Maplewood facility to commend the company's leaders on their increased production of respiratory masks used to prevent the spread of the virus and to inform state health leaders about ongoing efforts at the federal level to combat COVID-19. Pence told state and 3M leaders that the Trump administration would continue to "lean into" its efforts to combat the virus.

Congress advanced an $8.3 billion this week to contain and treat the coronavirus and President Donald Trump signed it into law on Friday.

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Minnesota state Rep. Laurie Halverson, D-Eagan, center, pushed for her paid family and medical leave bill at a Thursday, March 5, 2020 news conference in St. Paul's Capitol alongside fellow Democratic legislators and advocates. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service

Paid family leave proposal clears the DFL-led House

The Minnesota House late Thursday on a 70-59 vote advanced a plan to create a state-run program that would allow all Minnesota workers to take up to 24 weeks of paid family or medical leave. The program would be funded through a premium charged on employers and employees and would be expected to pay out $783 million in annual benefits once up and running.

Democrats who control the House celebrated the measure's passage and said it would offer peace of mind as well as economic certainty to Minnesota workers. Republicans and some Minnesota business leaders, meanwhile, said it would be overly burdensome for small businesses.

The bill appeared likely to languish in the Capitol as Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, said they wouldn't support the bill.

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Education disparities and solutions come to the forefront

Lawmakers in the Minnesota House and Senate on Friday took up efforts to bridge the state's opportunity gaps for students and weighed a series of plans designed to close those the divides.

Legislative leaders from both chambers have said it's one of the top issues facing the Legislature this session. And both chambers have said they must take steps this year to reduce disparities in educational outcomes.

Education experts, students of color, advocates and others on Friday proposed a variety of plans aimed at boosting achievement among Indigenous students, students of color and low-income students around the state. They said broader representation of teachers of color and Indigenous teachers, better access to early childhood education, wider access to broadband in Greater Minnesota, more equitable school discipline procedures and possibly a constitutional right to "quality public education" could even the playing field.

Again lawmakers considered an amendment that would enshrine in the constitution the right to a "quality public education" for every child.

"I think it will be a catalyst to interrupt the political logjam, but beyond that, I think it would be a catalyst to bring people together to focus on the individual child," former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, who is pushing for the amendment's approval, said.

But not all lawmakers were convinced that adding the language to the Minnesota Constitution would solve deeper problems that allowed for the disparities.

"There are solutions that are less dramatic than this, this frankly, we're taking a meat cleaver to it," Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes said. "I find this extremely troubling and dangerous to our state."

The Legislature will decide whether to refer the amendment to the November ballot to be considered by Minnesota voters.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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