[UPDATE: Gov. Tim Walz signed HF4531 into law March 28]
An additional $330.6 million to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota is a signature away from helping many Minnesotans.
“This is just the beginning, but it is an important first step,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley). “… It will be our job to help Minnesota recover, revive, and move on.”
Sponsored by Winkler and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-East Gull Lake), HF4531*/SF4451 was passed 99-4 by the House and 67-0 by the Senate Thursday. It awaits action by Gov. Tim Walz.
The Legislature has already appropriated about $221 million to support the Department of Health’s response and to help health care providers.
This new bill covers a much larger range of efforts, most notably a $200 million General Fund appropriation to create a COVID-19 Fund that Minnesota Management and Budget would draw upon to help state agencies respond to the outbreak.
A COVID-19 Response Commission, made up of legislative leaders and chairs of the House and Senate finance committees, would be created to review expenditures from the fund greater than $1 million.
Other budget items proposed in the bill include:
[MORE: View the spreadsheet]
House Republicans, including House Minority Leader Rep. Kurt Daudt (R-Crown), urged careful consideration of expenditures, stressing that the economic impact of the pandemic would almost surely consume the state’s projected $1.5 billion surplus.
Winkler said federal relief funding is expected to cover most of the costs associated with the measures included in HF4531.
And, despite the expenditures, Daudt did offer his support for the bill.
“Minnesotans can rest assured that because of this bill we are going to put much-needed help out across the state and give resources to people who are fighting this emergency on the front lines,” he said.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) urged the House to send money directly to the people and businesses of Minnesota because they could identify their needs more clearly than the government.
Policy measures in the bill would:
Transparency concerns and emergency operations
While the bill was put together over the previous 10 days, Winkler acknowledged there was limited opportunity for the public to review the actual language, which was released about 10 minutes before the House convened.
“We have done this work together in adverse conditions and we have not, unfortunately, been able to provide the kind of public engagement … that is characteristic of this body,” Winkler said.
On March 17, the House and Senate agreed to recess until April 14, with the understanding they would return as needed to take additional action. Since then, House members have been meeting via informal working groups, and trying to develop a “virtual committee hearing process” that could be open to the public.
“These are discussions that should have happened in committee and did not. … It definitely requires more thought, more discussion, that it certainly hasn’t had,” said Drazkowski, citing the opacity of the process as part of his reason for voting against the bill and suggesting that the House adjourn and meet remotely before voting
That will be possible after the Thursday floor session, during which the House amended its rules to allow “distance voting,” including remote electronic voting, to continue legislative operations while adhering to Health Department recommendations.
“This is a practice that should not be used except in the most extreme cases,” Winkler said, clarifying that the rule is specific to the COVID-19 pandemic while stressing the House’s commitment “to a public process” despite the logistical difficulties.
A few members are already quarantined after having contact with infected people, and the House needs to make sure it can still function if the number of affected representatives continues to grow, Daudt said.
“Regardless of what’s going on in the state, we need to be able to continue to function,” he said.
Distance voting could only be allowed at the direction of the speaker, after consultation with the minority and majority leaders.
The resolution also clarifies that committee meetings held “by alternate means” must provide the public with an opportunity to testify. The bill did not include any details about how this, or remote voting, would be done.
On Wednesday, Gov. Tim Walz announced an executive order directing Minnesotans to stay at home for two weeks, starting March 27, to buy valuable time for the state to increase its capacity to help people in need of intensive care due to the COVID-19 virus.
— House of Representatives Public Information Services' writers Rob Hubbard, Rachel Kats, and Tim Walker contributed to this story.