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.
The Memorial Day murder of George Floyd at the knee of a former Minneapolis police officer continues to spark outrage locally and nationally. For many people, especially in Black communities and other communities of color, the incident is the catalyst to forge ahead on policing reforms they’ve sought for years. His death laid bare the deeply rooted systemic inequalities between communities and highlighted the need for big changes to address racial and economic inequality, which has been made worse by COVID-19 and decades of police brutality.
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 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.
The capital investment infrastructure bill also became a contentious issue in the final weeks of session and both the first and second special sessions. Senate DFLers introduced a bonding bill in early May as bonding 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.
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 in the regular session. 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. But much work remained to be done.
SPECIAL SESSION #1
Governor Tim Walz extended his peacetime emergency, which fostered the need for a special session that started June 12 and provided the opportunity to pass several important provisions such as police reform and accountability, a robust bonding bill to build a stronger, more equitable economy, and the distribution of millions of dollars in federal assistance to local units of government from the CARES Act.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Capitol on Friday — the Juneteenth celebration of the end of slavery — to demand passage of the House DFL’s criminal justice package. It would add more officer training, boost community-led alternatives to policing, and raise the threshold for using deadly force from “apparent” to “imminent” threats to officers and others. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans didn’t listen to people from the community, the POCI Caucus, or recommendations from the taskforce, and this important legislation did not pass as a result.
Senate Republicans also held up negotiations on a bonding bill – leaving jobs on the table as Minnesotans are facing the economic storm brought on by COVID-19. A bonding bill is an economic development tool that will create thousands of much-needed jobs across the state, put more Minnesotans back to work, boost our economic recovery with shovel-ready projects, protect our state-owned assets, and make sound investments that Minnesota communities are asking for. A Special Session agreement was never reached so a vote never took place on the floor in either body. The chairs in the House and Senate had indicated that they will continue to work together to find an agreement that everyone can support.
Even though the failure to pass both police reforms and bonding was disappointing, several bills did pass to help Minnesotans. We provided more than $60 million in grants to businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The money will be equitably disbursed regionally across Minnesota and allocates funds to micro-businesses and businesses that are veteran, women, and minority owned. This move by the Minnesota Legislature fills a gap created by the federal CARES Act that focused on S-Corp, sole proprietors, and LLC companies. Expansion of broadband also passed, which included telemedicine and distance learning grant program. There was also an increase in payment rates for the state’s childcare assistance program.
When Senate Republicans moved to adjourn Sine Die early Saturday morning without finishing their work, Senate DFLers tried to extend the adjournment date to Monday so we could continue to work through the weekend and respond to the demands from our Black community and communities of color and finish our work on a bonding bill. Unfortunately, Republicans were unwilling to continue the work Minnesotans are demanding and went home Sine Die.
It is uncertain if the Governor will be calling another special session later this summer. If he does, these important reforms and the bonding bill must be addressed to protect our state and move our economy forward.
SPECIAL SESSION #2
The second special session began on July 13 with Senate Republicans once again voting to remove Governor Walz’s executive powers related to the COVID-19 pandemic, only to then recess until July 20. During that week, they held one informational hearing – a politically charged meeting about civil unrest in Minneapolis that restricted testimony from the public and that refused any questions related to the death of George Floyd. During the week five Senate Republicans, including the Majority Leader, traveled to Washington D.C. for a photo opportunity with President Trump. Yet they could not find the time for hearings on a supplemental budget, police reform, bonding bill, or tax relief.
The July 20 session began with Republicans in the Senate pushing an unvetted resolution urging the governor to allow school districts to make their own decisions on if – and how – they should reopen for classes in the fall. With a self-imposed deadline for adjourning that day, they spent hours debating this nonbinding, symbolic resolution, despite never having a public hearing in which teachers, administrators, or families could share their input on the move. The resolution passed but was not taken up in the House.
After more than two months of negotiations, the House and Senate finally passed a compromise package of police accountability measures early Tuesday morning. This legislation came after weeks of legislative impasse that had already derailed the June special session – one that was initially called to review the governor’s extension of his emergency powers. But the continuing outrage over the death of George Floyd kept the pressure on the Legislature to pass policing reforms when Walz extended the state of emergency again in July. The House overwhelmingly approved the measure just before midnight. The Senate passed it by a 60 to 7 margin once it came over and sent the bill to Governor Walz, who signed it into law.
The murder of George Floyd has laid bare the injustices in a law enforcement system that does not serve and protect all Minnesotans equally. The bills passed by the Legislature will establish some measures of accountability and initiate meaningful reform as we continue our work to build a system that values public safety for all. This is not the end of the Senate DFL’s commitment to people, families, and communities impacted by police violence, and there is still so much work to do. We are committed to continuing our work in partnership with those most affected to achieve real change.
The second special session also gave lawmakers another chance to pass a bonding bill. Walz and the leaders of the House and Senate majority parties agreed to the $1.8 billion construction package, but a bonding bill requires a three-fifths supermajority in both chambers to pass, and that means it needs at least seven votes from House Republicans. Unfortunately, House Republicans refused to support the legislation unless the governor reduced his executive powers needed to protect Minnesotans’ health and safety from the pandemic – despite the fact that every other state in the nation but one is still operating under the same criteria. The tax and supplemental budget bills also did not pass during the second special session.