The 2020 legislative session began on February 11 with a positive budget balance of $1.5 billion and a strong economic outlook for Minnesota. By mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic had completely upended the state’s economic forecast and forced the Legislature to change how it did its work. Virtual committee hearings became the norm, and floor session changed dramatically with social distancing and some members voting remotely. A normal year became laser-focused on measures to keep Minnesotans safe and to address the fallout of COVID-19.
With the costs of dealing with the pandemic rising and less revenue coming in for the state, Minnesota’s initial positive budget outlook swung to a $2.4 billion projected budget deficit. The updated May budget outlook confirms what we suspected: COVID-19 has created unprecedented economic disruption. This $4 billion swing in the economy presented a clear contrast on how to respond. Senate DFLers favored direct aid to help families and small businesses to weather this storm through support for housing, health care, education, and economic grants. Senate Republicans instead doubled down on costly tax cuts that would only make a dire situation worse.
While COVID-19 is an unforeseen and unprecedented crisis, Minnesota was better prepared to respond than many other states thanks to the sound management of the state’s budget over the past decade and our investment in a strong budget reserve. Investments are now needed to make Minnesotans secure in their housing, help small businesses, facilitate distance learning and telemedicine, and ensure we have the workforce we need to provide care for the elderly and people with disabilities. With new federal funding assistance available for the costs of responding to the pandemic, we can and should prioritize using our reserves before needlessly cutting the services our most vulnerable depend on.
With the state under a Stay-at-Home order, legislators found bipartisan agreement in addressing a series of immediate needs that helped the state build its public health care capacity and to help workers and small businesses affected by the economic disruption. However, as the Stay-at-Home order continued, Senate Republicans began to take legislative action to curtail the steps the governor had taken in responding to the crisis. Instead of prioritizing health and safety, they began to use the crisis as just another end of session bargaining chip.
It was disappointing that Senate Republicans politicized the lives and livelihood of thousands of state workers in the final hours of session by passing legislation to block negotiated pay raises for our front-line workers. The House ratified the contracts. Because of Senate Republican’s gamesmanship, the negotiated pay raises for police officers, firefighters, teachers, correctional officers, nurses, and other state employees– some of which had already gone into effect – were in jeopardy. It’s important to note that ratifying the contracts will not affect the current budget balance because are already paid for, since they were negotiated within the budget appropriations from the 2019 legislative session. Additionally, there is no statutory authority for the Legislature to modify a collective bargaining agreement.
The Capital Investment Infrastructure Bill also became a contentious issue in the final weeks of session. Senate DFLers introduced our own bonding bill in early May as it is essential to the economic recovery of the state after COVID-19 and is one of the best tools we have to get Minnesotans back to work and strengthen our infrastructure. Senate Republicans didn’t release their final bonding proposal until the day before adjournment. House Republicans defeated a $2 billion bonding bill on May 16 in protest over Governor Walz’s emergency powers. On May 17, Senate DFLers rejected the Senate Republican bonding bill because of its failure to support the State Emergency Operations Center that has been overworked during the COVID crisis, its lack of any funding for corrections, very little for HEAPR and our higher education institutions, nothing for transit, and no equity in bonding funding. The bonding bill did not pass in regular session, but legislators are hopeful it will pass in special session slated for mid-June.
On May 13, Governor Walz announced a 30-day extension of the peacetime emergency while allowing his Stay-at-Home order to expire on May 18. The Stay at Home order was replaced by a new order encouraging Minnesotans to stay close to home but allows for gatherings of friends and family of 10 people or less. Retail businesses would be allowed to resume at 50% capacity if they have a social distancing plan. A plan for allowing restaurants, bars, gyms, salons, and other venues to reopen as early as June 1 would also be announced by May 20. By last week, officials estimated roughly 91% of workers could remain on their jobs. The Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates that Walz’s new order will enable up to 37,000 more workers to safely return to work over the next several weeks.
Even under these difficult and unusual circumstances, we were able to pass the Alec Smith Insulin Affordability Act, important election security legislation, broadband infrastructure support for E-learning and telemedicine, and more funding to provide support for personal care attendants. We also provided support for our local businesses, made investments in housing and food security, and provided workers compensation benefits to our health care workers and public safety officials.
While the COVID-19 pandemic will require attention for some time, Senate DFLers will not lose focus on the unfinished business of the 2020 legislative session. We are committed to taking important steps forward to pass paid family leave, gun violence prevention, fair equity funding, affordable housing, a conversion therapy ban, medical cannabis reforms, addressing the opportunity gap, a stronger sexual harassment standard, restore the vote, Clean Energy First and 100% Clean Energy by 2050, and housing safety.