ST. PAUL — The next round of coronavirus legislation has sparked conflicting plans in the Minnesota Legislature as lawmakers race to finish typical work, economic stimulus efforts and plans to address the pandemic and its side effects in two weeks.
Leaders in the divided Legislature have so far agreed on funding proposals and policies aimed at freeing up funds for the Department of Health, health care providers and others dealing with the COVID-19, the illness spurred by the coronavirus, on the frontlines.
But as the clock ticks down, Democrats who hold a majority in the House of Representatives and Republicans who control the Senate, have come out with different plans to help Minnesotans manage the economic hit posed by the pandemic and the state's efforts to combat it.
A move to distance learning has brought to the forefront inequities in broadband and technology access. As another deadline to pay rent and mortgages came Friday, many workers furloughed or laid off during the pandemic again struggled to pay. And business owners asked to shutter under executive orders from the state faced questions about how long they'd be able to hang on if they couldn't open their doors soon.
On both sides of the political aisle, lawmakers acknowledged the new issues facing Minnesotans or existing issues that had been intensified due to the pandemic. And they set out plans to offset some of those struggles.
But disagreements about the best ways to do that could further delay relief for Minnesotans out of work or business owners eagerly waiting to reopen.
With a May 18 deadline to wrap up their COVID-19 work as well as normal legislative action and a bonding bill, here's a look at what lawmakers are weighing and what the proposals could mean for Minnesotans.
Differing plans to help offset pandemic's impacts
Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers in the House on Friday advanced a plan that included several of their priorities aimed at helping Minnesotans weather the economic impact of the pandemic and the state's response measures. Among them were plans to put $100 million toward housing assistance, funding pay for hourly school employees, providing a raise for personal care attendants, boosting funding to build out broadband and using federal funds to increase payments to needy families by $500.
The state received $1.87 billion from the federal CARES Act to respond to the pandemic and its repercussions in the state and Democratic legislators said the funds should be used, in part, to boost funds going to Minnesota workers and families.
“Minnesotans are looking for help in this crisis in whatever way possible,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said. “Minnesota has the resources we need to address the crisis and to create a more secure, more stable and a more equitable society in the future.”
Meanwhile, Republicans ahead of a projected budget shortfall have supported lower-cost items and pushed for state cost-cutting where possible. And with many businesses still shuttered due to the pandemic, the GOP-led Senate approved a $330 million tax plan aimed at providing relief for small business owners and farmers through Section 179 tax conformity, extending tax filing deadlines and granting tax credits.
Democrats in that chamber opposed the bill, saying it could delay or prevent payments to the state, further complicating a dire economic outlook for state budgeting. They also said it was "premature" given the state is set to get a fuller look at the state's projected revenues on Tuesday.
The measure's supporters said the tax relief measure was needed to offset the pain felt by business owners due to orders requiring them to shutter. And without the support, the state wouldn't see revenues come into its coffers, Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said.
Republicans lawmakers also put forth a $30 million plan to fund housing assistance with a sunset on the governor's moratorium on evictions. They also advanced a measure aimed at expanding broadband access in Minnesota and passed measures that would put a check on the governor's executive authority and spending of COVID-19 response funds.
"Right now the governor has complete control over that and we just think it's wise that the legislative branch participates in that," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said.
Committees are set to continue virtual hearings next week and both the House and Senate are set to hold floor sessions to advance legislation. Legislative leaders said this week that they plan to continue working together to pass compromise proposals.