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House approves $208 million in COVID-19 economic relief

Rep. Zack Stephenson (DFL-Coon Rapids), who sponsors HF1507, speaking during House Floor debate on the bill Thursday. (Screenshot via HTV1 webcast)
Rep. Zack Stephenson (DFL-Coon Rapids), who sponsors HF1507, speaking during House Floor debate on the bill Thursday. (Screenshot via HTV1 webcast)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesotans need economic help in many areas, including mortgage and rent protection, emergency small-business loans and resources to care for their loved ones.

HF1507, labeled the “COVID-19 Economic Security Act,” would appropriate $208 million in the 2020-21 biennium to provide economic relief in all those areas.

The House passed the bill Thursday on a 75-58 party-line vote. It now goes to the Senate.

“Minnesotans are hurting today,” said Rep. Zack Stephenson (DFL-Coon Rapids), the bill sponsor. “They are struggling to pay the rent, they are struggling to provide care for their loved ones, they are struggling to keep their dreams alive. We at the Legislature have the resources to help.”

The bill would appropriate:

  • $100 million for eviction and mortgage foreclosure protection/emergency housing assistance;
  • $55 million for small-business emergency loans;
  • $27 million for grant programs to fund distance learning, broadband access and equipment for telemedicine; and
  • $26 million for a temporary 15% pay increase for personal care assistants during the pandemic.

[MORE: View the spreadsheet]

However, the state would not necessarily have to spend all those amounts.

At a morning news conference, House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) said she believes that all of the appropriations would be eligible to be funded by money the state will receive under the CARES Act.

If not, the state’s General Fund would be the monetary source.


Floor debate, amendments touch on bigger issues

Republicans said they appreciated the emergency loans and other help for small businesses, but several said the best way to help businesses would be to let them reopen.

The state doesn’t have enough resources to prop up businesses for much longer, said Rep. Kristin Robbins (R-Maple Grove). “It’s already too late for some of them,” she added.

Rep. Eric Lucero (R-Dayton) said Democrats are hypocritical by saying they are helping businesses with this legislation when “they are directly responsible for this crisis.”

DFLers disagreed with that characterization.

“Minnesota cannot afford not to act” to help families, small businesses and communities struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) said. “If we do nothing, if we let them fall through the cracks and be left behind, we’re going to have a much, much slower economic recovery afterwards,” he said.

An amendment to limit Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency powers was unsuccessfully offered by Rep. Jerry Hertaus (R-Greenfield), and Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) unsuccessfully offered an amendment that would have prevented Walz from drawing his state salary during the remaining period of the COVID-19 peacetime emergency.

Both were ruled not to be germane.

Rep. Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls) unsuccessfully offered an amendment that would have changed the formulas that would distribute broadband grants throughout the state. It failed on a 77-57 party-line vote.


Housing assistance

HF1507 would provide $100 million for financial assistance to residential tenants, homeowners, and manufactured home owners to pay for housing costs if they have lost income due to COVID-19.

Landlords would be prohibited from charging late fees and terminating leases or failing to renew leases during a COVID-19-related peacetime emergency until Jan. 15, 2021.

The funding would go to the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, and be administered through the Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program.


Small business relief

The bill would appropriate $55 million to replenish the Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Small Business Emergency Loan Program, which was created by the governor’s March 23 Executive Order. These loans are intended to provide immediate relief for small businesses struggling with the coronavirus pandemic and were ordered to close their doors.

The loans would have 12 months of deferred payments, and are 75-100% forgivable after two or three years if a “business remains operating in the community at substantially the same levels” as prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Very small businesses were ineligible for loans under the governor’s executive order, Stephenson said. He said the bill would set aside $11 million just for “the smallest of the small” businesses, those with six or fewer employees.


Distance learning, broadband access and telemedicine

The bill would appropriate $15 million for emergency distance learning wireless needs, $10 million for border-to-border broadband needs and $2 million for telemedicine needs.

The distance learning wireless funds would be allocated to each school district, charter school or cooperative unit based on the number of students enrolled in the school.

Money for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program would fund broadband expansion projects in parts of the state that are most sorely lacking access to high-speed internet.

The telemedicine appropriation would reimburse licensed health care providers and counties that purchase and install telemedicine equipment to diagnose and evaluate patients with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Pay raises for personal care assistants

The bill would also appropriate $26 million for a temporary rate increase of 15% for personal care assistants under contract with the Department of Human Services to provide personal care for disabled and elderly individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pay raises would expire Jan. 31, 2021, or 60 days after the coronavirus-related peacetime emergency is terminated, whichever is earlier.

The bill would also increase the monthly limit on the number of hours a personal care assistant may provide contracted services through the Department of Human Services from 275 hours to 310 hours.

Together, those provisions should help ease a long-standing shortage of PCAs, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, said Rep. Todd Lippert (DFL-Northfield). With more PCAs on the job, more disabled and elderly Minnesotans could stay in their residences and out of nursing homes.

“The alternative to receiving care in the home is care in a nursing facility, and that is care that is much, much more expensive not only to families, but to the state as well,” Lippert said.


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