The House of Representatives gaveled into special session Friday with 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence for George Floyd, whose death while in the custody of Minneapolis police sparked widespread outrage, protests, and civil unrest as well as calls for legislative action.
Criminal justice reform and assistance for communities impacted by civil unrest are two of the four major areas of work identified as priorities by House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) and House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) in a morning news conference.
The House also intends to tackle unfinished business left over from regular session – most notably, passing a bonding bill – and further address the COVID-19 pandemic: which took center stage in Friday’s floor debates.
Small Business Aid
The House began its special session work by passing SSHF5 on a 129-5 vote. In part, the bill would provide $62.5 million for emergency small-business grants and loans – $60 million from a federal coronavirus relief bill and $2.5 million from Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Emergency Loan Program.
“It is very important that we deliver this aid … as soon as we possibly can,” said Rep. Zack Stephenson (DFL-Coon Rapids), the bill sponsor. “When you own a small business, it’s not just your livelihood, it’s your identity”
It now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Paul Anderson (R-Plymouth) is the sponsor.
The bill would make grants of up to $10,000 available to small businesses that experienced financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, could not operate at 51 percent of normal capacity, or more, as of May 18, and meet other requirements.
The grants would be evenly split between the metro area and Greater Minnesota and ultimately determined by a lottery, to be conducted by a third party. There would be specific, minimum carve-outs, including:
“This will not be enough,” said Rep. Kristin Robbins (R-Maple Grove). “But I’m thrilled that we can get some amount ... out there.”
Robbins commended small businesses across the state for making financial investments and coming up with creative solutions so they can serve their customers safely, including changing their floor plans to allow for social distancing and properly training their staff to take increased safety and hygiene measures.
An earlier version of the bill was considered during regular session and further discussed in the interim.
The bill also includes a proposal – which started out as a separate bill sponsored by Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls) – to repay the Minnesota 21st Century Fund whenever the state, once again, has a surplus.
Many Republicans commenting on the bill stressed the importance of allowing businesses to fully re-open and called for an end to the state’s peacetime emergency.
Peacetime emergency debate
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) unsuccessfully offered a resolution to terminate Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order extending the COVID-19 Peacetime Emergency. It was rejected 73-61.
Daudt and other Republicans said Walz has overreached the constitutional powers of his office, usurped the rightful authority of the Legislature, and inhibited Minnesotans’ abilities to make the decisions right for their specific situations.
“The crisis isn’t over, but the emergency phase of the crisis is over,” Robbins said. “We are well into the ‘management’ phase of the crisis … and it is time to restore co-equal branches of government … we have to reassert our voices in this debate.”
Democrats asserted that the governor’s emergency powers remain vital to the management of the pandemic, as the Legislature is not capable of responding quickly enough to rapidly changing circumstances,
Ending the peacetime emergency would be “a lethal mistake,” said Rep. Alice Mann (DFL-Lakeville).
“Closing down areas of gathering has saved thousands of lives. That’s data, that’s science,” she said. “To say we can quickly pass laws to address this, if and when we have another spike, is ludicrous.”
Supporters of the resolution said Minnesotans should be left to make their own decisions regarding what precautions they should take to keep themselves and their communities safe.
“People are ready to get on with their lives, and they’re going to do it respectfully,” said Rep. Jeff Backer (R-Browns Valley).
Minnesotans “want to smash the virus control machine,” Rep. Mary Franson (R-Alexandria) said, joining many Republicans in stressing the frustrations they say they have heard from their constituents – especially those in rural areas, reliant on seasonal income.
Minnesotans stand on both sides of the issue, and some believe that the state is re-opening too quickly, said Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester).
“This is not a matter of yes or no, up or down,” she said. “A lot of the impacts from this situation are impacts of the pandemic. They’re not impacts of the shutdown.”
The Senate voted 38-29 to end the state’s peacetime emergency Friday, but approval by both bodies of the Legislature is necessary in order stop the governor from exercising emergency powers.
— House Public Information Services Writer Rob Hubbard contributed to this report