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Capitol Retort: Flu v. COVID; supplemental budget; Zooming

Kevin Featherly//April 16, 2020

Capitol Retort: Flu v. COVID; supplemental budget; Zooming

Kevin Featherly//April 16, 2020

Editor’s note: Answers are edited for length and clarity. Any instances of agreement are accidental.


Question 1: Some 550,000 U.S. confirmed cases of COVID-19 have killed 22,000 people since Feb. 29. Meanwhile, 55 million U.S. influenza cases have killed about 62,000 since October. Conservative local pundit John Hinderaker, in a blog post, argues that COVID-19 deaths are “fractions of a normal flu season” and that coronavirus deaths could one day equal flu numbers, which were “barely a news story.” Is he right?

Scott Dibble, DFL state senator: Obviously, there are such fundamental differences between the flu and COVID. No one has any immunity and the mortality rate and the level of contagiousness is much higher. But for the steps that we’re taking, it would absolutely spread like wildfire. Why would we reverse that now? If he wants to get his jollies with his partisan shots, that’s a tragedy. Because it is a huge danger, particularly to our grandparents and the people we love who are medically fragile. It is the height of self-indulgent and dangerous demagoguery. It is disgusting, frankly.

Fritz Knaak, attorney, former GOP state senator: That is an interesting question and no one has come up with a solid answer yet. It’s one of those things where we’ll know next year. There’s an argument that if there had been no shutdown, the numbers would have exceeded by far the flu numbers. It’d be interesting to see, if we attacked flu in somewhat the same way that we’ve attacked COVID, whether we’d see a similar reduction in those numbers. Maybe what’s going to come of all this is a broader understanding of what we all need to do collectively, to knock those numbers down for all illnesses.

Jennifer DeJournett, chair, Women’s Conservative Caucus: No, he’s not right. It’s math and science—not even getting into the fact that with the flu virus there’s a basic immunity to it, because it’s a human-based virus. This is a zoological-based virus and humans don’t have a base immunity for that. So it is not the same at all. I wish it was. I wish he was right. Unfortunately, math and science are just brutal facts.

Greg Davids, former House Taxes committee chair: Yes. It’s a very serious situation we’re in, but I believe that we need to get people back to work as quickly as possible. And I think they can do so safely. While it’s a very serious situation and a very serious virus, we have many things that have taken more lives than that. But you know, I hope it’s under control.

Floyd B. Olson, former senior assistant Hennepin County attorney: He must be a Republican. One of the things that Dr. Michael Osterholm said this morning was that this is really not an issue of blue versus red states, because eventually this will creep into the rural areas. And then nobody will talk about it that way. The rural areas will be hit harder because they don’t really have the facilities to take care of people. [Editor’s note: The U.S. COVID-19 death figures come from John Hopkins University; the influenza data comes from the CDC.]

Question 2: On Thursday, the House Public Safety Committee will hear a $37 million supplemental budget request that includes money for courthouse safety, overtime pay for prison guards and money for rape-kit storage and testing, among other things. With deficits looming, what are the chances of that passing?

Dibble: I don’t know. That’s a good question. Definitely, we’re hearing skepticism on the part of the Republican leadership in the Senate about anything that costs money, aside from tax cuts, which they’re still talking about. And that actually will rob us of even more resources. But I heard [Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa] on the radio saying that he’s skeptical of anything that has budgetary implications outside of the COVID response. So stay tuned. It definitely is not a shoo-in, though.

Knaak: I would hope good, but I don’t know. One of the things that this virus has done is cause a lot of rethinking, in a hell of a hurry, about the kinds of things that that we need for the courts. And certainly, I would think that the parts of that have to do with the safety of the [Corrections] employees is pretty important. They’ve been understaffed for years, everybody knows it, and now they’ve got this added burden of being in hothouses for COVID-19. If you want to get this passed, this is the time to do it. But I think it has a very real possibility of getting lost in the forest at the end of the session.

DeJournett: I think it’s going to be tough. I think that we’re probably going to have to start cutting things. That’s probably where we are—if we can get anybody in the same room to have a serious conversation. It’s a lot easier to say no and object when you’re talking in a conference call than it is to look someone in the face and dealing with tough questions.

Davids: We are still in spending mode even though the state is broke. The surplus is gone and the reserve will be spent very quickly. We’re going to go into a [Gov. Tim] Walz recession. It’s very, very serious. And so, at some point, people have to realize the state is broke.

Olson: It would pass if we spent like the federal government does, where it has no real debt limit. What I think is that the chances of it passing are probably not very good, from what I hear Gazelka saying.

Social distancing and substitute meeting areas for lawmakers were in effect in the Minnesota House as legislators met April 7. (AP photo: Jim Mone)
Social distancing and substitute meeting areas for lawmakers were in effect in the Minnesota House as legislators met April 7. (AP photo: Jim Mone)

Question 3: The Minnesota House has held several Zoom-style committee hearings so far and even passed bills over to the floor. The Senate was scheduled to start doing that on Wednesday, after this issue goes to press. Stipulating that this isn’t the best way to conduct legislative business, how do you think it’s working out so far?

Dibble: I think it’s fine. You lose something qualitatively by not being there in person—body language and facial expressions and things like that, or maybe the ability to summon staff over to ask a question or distribute papers. There are some shortcomings. But they’re not crucial. I think our ability to converse well, debate and bring the public in so that everything is transparent, open and accessible as possible is fine.

Knaak: Remarkably well. I am intrigued that these options are actually available. One little provision of the Data Practices Act and the Open Meetings Law that I had never seen was the use of the word “pandemic.” A provision is already in Minnesota law that allows full fully electronic meetings, as long as it allows for public participation in some way. So I’m encouraged by it. I think this is going to teach us some things about what we can or can’t do with modern technology. And I think it’s going to change, in a very interesting way, what we think about when we insist on open meetings.

DeJournett: I think it’s tough, because not everybody knows when and how and where to tune in to meetings and find out information about it. But in a situation where we obviously can’t get together, something is better than nothing, I suppose. So I’ll give it a solid B-minus.

Davids: It’s horrible. People have been cut out of being able to participate. Members are alienated. This is the worst possible way to pass any laws. And I think that we will look back and say and we really blew it.

Olson: I don’t know, but I’ll tell you this: The less debate they have on some of these things the better it is.

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