Between the end of the regular session and the start of June’s special session, we had the privilege of hosting Senate Majority Leader Gazelka and House Majority Leader Winkler for a session recap town hall outlining the accomplishments and shortfalls of the 2020 legislative session and discussed the policy implications of 2020 for our members.
Ed. Note: This event took place before the murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day. While the topics discussed in this event were pressing at the time, the state and national discourse has changed dramatically.
A little over a week ago, Governor Walz extended his peacetime emergency powers for another 30 days, triggering a special session that brought lawmakers back to the State Capitol. From the outset, the governor’s peacetime emergency powers and public safety took center stage, though the special session also gave the Legislature the opportunity to address unresolved issues from the regular session: a bipartisan bonding bill, legislative oversight over federal coronavirus funding, and economic aid and tax relief during the pandemic.
Republicans, who control the state Senate, returned for the special session and signaled their plan to adjourn June 19. This first special session saw sides make little progress on these major policy items before the Senate Republicans’ Friday deadline passed:
The Republican-led Senate immediately voted to end Gov. Walz’s peacetime emergency, calling for more legislative oversight over the pandemic. But the DFL-controlled House blocked the move, assuring that the governor’s emergency powers can run another 30 days.
Police reform dominated the week’s special session, but legislators reached an impasse on a package of public safety reform proposals late into Friday night. House Democrats put forward a package of around 20 bills that would address the state’s deadly force laws, ban “warrior-style” training for law enforcement, and restore the right to vote for those previously convicted of a felony. Republicans opposed the breadth of these provisions and strongly opposed giving the attorney general’s office jurisdiction over cases against officers accused of improper use of deadly force. They put forth a narrower proposal of their own, which included a ban on chokeholds. Neither proposal cross the finish line.
The House passed a $300 million package to help those businesses damaged by the uprising in the Twin Cities, which passed on a 74-53 vote. The package includes a metro tax to support redevelopment through a special master panel to make awards to compensate for damages suffered by certain persons from the civil unrest. A Senate proposal for grants to the affected area did not get a hearing during the special session. Legislators failed to reach an agreement on how best to support the affected area and neither proposal passed.
Lawmakers also left unsettled a plan to distribute $841 million in federal COVID-19 aid to communities around the state. It appeared that the Legislature neared an agreement as the Minnesota Senate voted to give every city and every county in the state a portion of the CARES Act funding based on their number of residents.
Ultimately, the House Democrats agreed to distribute money based on number of residents in return for the Senate agreeing to fund cities within Hennepin and Ramsey Country (which each already received funding from the federal government). Any money that is not spent by late 2020 has to be returned to the state to be used for statewide coronavirus relief, with the exception of unspent money in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, which would instead be redirected to Hennepin Healthcare and Regions Hospital. The money can be used for PPE, worker’s compensation for first responders, and safely administering the November elections.
However, in the final days of special session, the House Democrats attached controversial spending items to the bill, sending the two parties back to the negotiating table.
Legislators hardly touched bonding. The House did not even introduce their bonding proposal. The Senate introduced their proposal but didn’t bring it to the floor. Medical Alley continues to support three bonding proposals: Runway Improvements at Rochester International Airport, Highway 610 Corridor Project, and a Clinical Research Facility at the University of Minnesota.
The Legislature approved a $62 million package of grants for small businesses impacted by the pandemic. This includes the Small Business Relief Grant Program, which will provide $10,000 grants to small businesses that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses with 50 or fewer full-time employees are eligible. Half of the funding will go to businesses in Greater Minnesota and the other half will go to businesses in the seven-county metro area, as required by law.
The Legislature also passed agreement on an extension of human services program waivers and modifications made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill extends several modifications and waivers until June 30, 2021. The bill authors said this year-long extension will allow the state to understand which changes from the peacetime emergency should be made permanent.
The authors of the bill highlighted how telehealth waivers for public programs support continuity of care. The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) highlighted that previous restrictions limited patients’ ability to use phone calls, FaceTime, or other video meeting platforms like Zoom. Now, these common platforms are allowable. Legislators will debate which of these DHS waivers will continue in the next regular legislative session.
Minnesota has experienced several special sessions in recent years but the coming months are likely to be a series of many special session to respond to COVID-19 issues, budget volatility, and police reform. As a clearer picture emerges of how the rest of the year will unfold, we will keep you up to date on the developments.