COVID-19 provisions passed
The Senate DFL caucus is committed to expanding – rather than suppressing – voter access and will continue to advocate for policies that make it more convenient and less onerous to vote.
Help America Vote Act (HAVA)
The Legislature authorized Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds from the federal 2019 Consolidated Appropriations Act ($7.3 million) and 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act ($6.9 million). The bill included the required 20% state match, which is $1.4 million appropriated from the General Fund. The federal Election Assistance Commission recently issued guidance that states may use HAVA funds for COVID-related expenses (e.g. personal protective equipment or absentee ballot expansion) if the funds don’t supplant other existing state or local election appropriations. (HF 3429)
Various election-related accommodations for local election officials and the Office of the Secretary of State were passed in anticipation of managing the presidential election and primary amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Local election officials are now able to designate new polling locations until July 1, allow health care workers to administer absentee ballots to residents, and process absentee ballots on an extended timeline. Election officials will only be able to use schools as polling locations when no other location is reasonably available. If schools must be used, election officials and school staff must work to ensure that contact between voters and students is minimized.
While the Legislature failed to allow automatic vote-by-mail, legislation was passed that does anticipate an influx of more absentee ballot applications this election season. Local election officials are provided an additional week (for 14 days total) before election day to open and count absentee ballots plus two days following election day.
Since the national party conventions have been pushed back, the Legislature moved the deadline for when political parties must submit the names of candidates to be nominated as presidential electors. Currently, the deadline is 71 days prior to election day; legislation passed requires submission 67 days prior.
Affidavits of candidacy, nominating petitions, and requests to count write-in votes may now be requested electronically rather than requested in person at the Office of the Secretary of State. (HF 3429)
Public employee contacts
In October 2019, MMB concluded negotiations on new public employee labor contracts for 2020-21 for AFSCME Council 5, AFSCME Council 25, MAPE, and the Middle Management Association. The contracts provide for a 2.25% and 2.5% across-the-board increase in both fiscal years. Since the Legislative Coordinating Commission Subcommittee on Employee Relations (SER) did not approve the contracts during the interim within 30 days of a tentative agreement, the AFSCME and MAPE contracts went into effect in November of 2019.
Minnesota State reached labor agreements with the Inter Faculty Organization to provide 1.9% and 2.0% across-the-board increases for 2020-21, respectively, and the Minnesota State University Association of Administrative and Service Faculty to provide an across-the-board increase of 1.5% in 2020. Since the SER did not approve the contracts during the interim, the contracts were implemented in early January.
Contract agreements for the Minnesota Nurses Association, Minnesota State College Faculty, Government Engineers Council, and the administrative plans also provide a 2% and a 2.5% salary increase but they have not gone into effect because they were either submitted too late or require direct SER or legislative approval.
Senate Republicans attempted to impose a contingency on the ratification of these contracts by requiring the commissioner of MMB to confirm a positive general fund balance at the end of the 20-21 biennium prior to ratification of the second year pay raise. The Senate DFL supported full ratification of the contracts for the state employees working on the front lines of the COVID pandemic and voted against this attempt to meddle in collective bargaining agreements. (HF 2796)
Fraternal organizations COVID flexibility
Legislation was passed to allow veterans and fraternal clubs to loan lawful gambling funds to the organization’s general account for emergency expenditures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Emergency expenditures include reopening their primary headquarters for non-gambling related purposes or to meet a financial obligation due and payable that if not met, would require the organization to close its primary headquarters – paying utility expenses in particular. Loans must be repaid to the gambling account within one calendar year.
The legislation provided additional regulatory changes requested by the Gambling Control Board and passed unanimously by the Senate. (SF 512)
Racing Commission COVID flexibility
Legislation passed that temporarily allows horse racing purse funds to be used for capital improvements at Canterbury Park and Running Aces upon agreement with horsepersons’ organizations. It also temporarily increases the fee on advanced deposit wagers from one to two percent of the total wagered by Minnesota residents. This will allow the Racing Commission to manage horse racing if it recommences this summer either remotely or with social distancing in place. It allows the Racing Commission to permit card clubs at a licensed track even if the track does not have at least 50 days of racing this season due to a shorter racing season. (HF 4597)
MMB grant extension
Language passed this session allows grants issued by the state, with approval from MMB, to be extended up to two years beyond the year the grants are scheduled to expire. This is intended to help grantees who may be unable to expend funds as required by the terms of the grant due to impediments created by the pandemic. (HF 4500)
COVID-19 provisions not passed
Republican legislators blocked efforts to automatically mail every registered voter in the state a ballot to minimize the number of voters physically present in polling locations for the 2020 Presidential Election. Currently, any non-metro township or city with less than 400 registered voters may choose to hold elections by mail. It is unfortunate that further efforts to expand vote-by-mail reform, especially in light of safety concerns during this pandemic, were not supported by Republican legislators.
Peacetime emergency declaration limitation
Under current law, governors have authority to declare a peacetime emergency for up to 30 days and extend it by 30 days thereafter. The Legislature is not required to approve the extensions, but it does have the authority to terminate the emergency authority by majority vote of each house. When the Legislature is not in session, the governor is required to call a special session to provide an opportunity for this rejection to occur.
Governor Walz has taken critical measures to ensure the health and safety of Minnesotans based on his declaration of a peacetime emergency on March 13. This bill was an attempt by Senate Republicans to greatly hamstring the ability of the governor to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation would have limited the ability for the governor to extend a peacetime emergency beyond 30 days without explicit legislative authorization. A majority vote of both bodies would be required to extend a peacetime emergency for up to 14 days.
The governor will already need to call a special session in order to extend the current peacetime emergency beyond June 13 of this year (a statutory check added in 2005). We are living through an unprecedented crisis that threatens the health and safety of Minnesotans. If this bill would have passed, it would have hurt the ability for the governor to quickly and efficiently make decisions necessary to respond to the pandemic. The legislation was not heard in the House and did not become law. (SF 4519)
Non-COVID provisions passed
Omnibus pension bill
The Senate and House passed an omnibus pension bill that made various technical changes to the public pension plans, including the Minnesota State Retirement Association (MSRS), Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA), and Teachers Retirement Association (TRA). The bill also resolves several issues pertaining to volunteer fire relief associations and municipalities.
Many municipalities in Minnesota are converting to career fire departments as opposed to volunteer or on-call departments due to a number of factors, including growing populations or a lack of volunteers. As volunteer fire relief associations have been dissolved, there have been several disputes between cities and fire relief associations over the allocation of surplus fund benefits. Currently, cities retain the pension assets, and volunteer firefighters do not receive any of the excess funds.
Based on the recommendations of the Conversions and Dissolutions Working Group, the omnibus pension bill implements a process for the distribution of benefits between cities and volunteer firefighters. If a dissolving fund has a surplus, the bill allows volunteer firefighters to receive up to 125% of the maximum benefit allowable under law (which is also increased in this bill) in the form of an increased lump sum or monthly annuity. The remainder of any assets are provided to the municipality if it has made contributions in the past, and if additional funds are available, they are split 50/50 between the relief and the city.
The bill also codifies various agreements between cities and relief associations on how to allocate fire state aid, dissolve associations, or transfer retirement accounts for Eagan, Brooklyn Park, Ramsey, and Nowthen. The bill includes language allowing the Austin and Hibbing relief associations to continue to allocate fire state aid under their existing agreements and court-approved settlements. It also enacts various recommendations from the Volunteer Fire Relief Association Working Group and Fire State Aid Working Group.
The omnibus pension bill was agreed upon by all stakeholders and was unanimously passed by the Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement, the State Government Finance Committee, and full Senate unanimously. (SF 3808)
Non-COVID provisions not passed
Voter ID and provisional ballots
Senate Republicans moved but ultimately did not pass a bill to restrict voting rights and create a second-class tier of ballots in Minnesota. Despite the defeat of the Voter ID constitutional amendment in 2012, the bill would have imposed strict voter identification requirements, which would have disenfranchised countless voters across the state. Provisional ballots are not necessary in Minnesota because the state provides same-day voter registration. Provisional ballots in other states are filled out by voters who do not register ahead of time or their status as an eligible voter has been challenged. Provisional voters must then verify their eligibility—typically with their county election officials—to ultimately have their ballot counted. Implementing this controversial provision would have resulted in thousands of ballots being cast aside and left uncounted. (S.F. 3571)
Presidential primary data protection
The party ballot selection data collected in the 2020 Presidential Nomination Primary Election on March 3is provided to the major political parties based on current law. It provides a comprehensive list of all voters and which unique party ballot all voters selected, but not who they voted for. Current law does not restrict who the political parties may share this voter data with, which has raised significant privacy concerns.
Potential voters are concerned that their party ballot preference data could be used to discredit their professional objectivity or could be publicly released by another political party. While parties collected data from caucus participants in the past, the potential for higher participation in the primary and the fact that all parties receive all the data has resulted in added scrutiny to the new presidential nominating primary.
Legislation to protect this voter data failed to pass this session and raises significant questions regarding who will gain access to the information. (HF 3068)