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A screenshot from a press conference Nov. 23, 2020, where Gov. Tim Walz announced a special session to address aid for business during the latest COVID restrictions. (Submitted photo: Courtesy of Office of the Governor)
A screenshot from a press conference Nov. 23, 2020, where Gov. Tim Walz announced a special session to address aid for business during the latest COVID restrictions. (Submitted photo: Courtesy of Office of the Governor)

Walz pitches COVID relief special session

Update: Walz, House GOP, push for quick aid for businesses

Gov. Tim Walz said Monday that he plans to call a seventh special session in early December, this time to push a COVID-19 small-business relief package to fill in gaps created by the federal government’s failure to pass a new stimulus bill.

The package, which Walz told reporters Monday had been worked out over the weekend between his team and House leaders, would provide temporary relief to communities, small businesses and individual workers.

The governor provided few details, but said he planned to roll out a more fulsome proposal sometime Tuesday.

The governor on Monday also sent a letter to legislative leaders urging them to act.

“The pandemic is not fair, and it is our job as leaders to make it more just,” he wrote. “Small businesses across our state are in dire need of relief. Many workers are struggling to make ends meet. As we take action to protect the health of our neighbors, we must also take action to support the people who are sacrificing so much.”

A House spokesman said he had nothing to add beyond what the governor said Monday afternoon.

The special session likely would happen shortly after Minnesota Management and Budget’s Dec. 3 revenue forecast update, but before an expected mid-December special session where Walz’s peacetime emergency powers would once again be reviewed.

“I’m prepared to call them back into special session and pass this immediately,” he said. “The sooner the better. The relief will be there.”

As outlined by the governor Monday, the package would:

  • Temporarily forgive sales tax for businesses that sell food and beverages.
  • Waive state regulatory and licensing fees.
  • Explore direct relief for individual workers.
  • Provide one-time food grants to businesses that provide food to health care workers, homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.
  • Create a state tax credit for food donations in the hospitality industry.
  • Eliminate the COVID-19 Minnesota fund’s expiration date.

“This is the best that Minnesota can do,” the governor said, “and it makes financial sense.”

In answer to a reporter’s question, Walz said no deal was yet in place Monday to pass the legislation. He said he had not discussed the package with Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, prior to announcing it publicly. His focus, he said, was on the House, where spending bills must originate.

But he said he is optimistic that the measure can be a bipartisan success.

“I am getting every indication that there is a desire to get something done,” Walz told reporters. “I am trying to leave that space for the Legislature to partner in this. I keep hearing that they want to be part of this decision making, so I am going to put this out there.”

In a written statement Monday, Gazelka responded to the proposal—or what he knows of it.

“Senate Republicans are committed to recovering our economy that has been harmed by broad and prolonged shutdowns,” Gazelka said. “We will work with anyone to find solutions and have not yet received any special session notice or relief proposal from the governor.”

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said his caucus has been working since last week on its own proposal to help small businesses impacted by latest shutdown. He too indicated his caucus had not heard directly from the governor.

“We hope the governor will work with the Legislature,” Daudt wrote in a press statement, “but have yet to hear from him on what he is proposing for a potential special session.”

Walz framed his plan as providing relief to businesses and communities affected by last week’s executive order that once again closed gyms, theaters and other entertainment venues while restricting bars, microbreweries and eateries to pick-up or delivery service. The new order also bans most team sports and social gatherings involving more than three households.

The same order authorizes the attorney general, city attorneys and county attorneys to investigate and seek civil penalties of up $25,000 per instance against those who violate or threaten to violate the order. Penalties can include injunctive relief, the Nov. 12 order says, and may involve reimbursing agencies for costs of investigations as well as attorney’s fees.

Walz acknowledged that the order, the strictest he has issued since March, is tough on the small business community as its struggles to stay afloat through the pandemic.

“We hear you,” he said. “You’re protecting people by closing your doors. You’re ensuring that we can get our economy back better than we have before.” The relief package he is proposing, Walz said, would help alleviate that burden.

Walz also called on the federal government to pass either the $2.2 trillion HEROES Act that U.S. House Democrats approved in October, or some facsimile of that bill.

Such a bill would represent a long-delayed sequel to the COVID-19 stimulus money Congress passed earlier this year. A second bill has been in limbo for months because of a negotiations stalemate between Congress’ House and Senate chambers.

In the meantime, Walz said, he hopes the Legislature passes his relief package, or some compromise version of it. The timing, coming right after a new budget forecast reveals where the state stands financially nine months into the pandemic, will be right, he said.

“We’re going to know where we are at on revenues, where we are at on the budget, what we are looking at going into the next biennium when we start this next session in January,” Walz said. “That should give us a good place where we should be able to work some of this out.”

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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