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The few members of the Minnesota House in attendance at the Capitol during Special Session VII listen to the chaplain’s prayer at the session’s opening on Monday. (Photo courtesy of House Public Information Services)
The few members of the Minnesota House in attendance at the Capitol during Special Session VII listen to the chaplain’s prayer at the session’s opening on Monday. (Photo courtesy of House Public Information Services)

Legislature easily passes COVID-19 relief bill

Despite plenty of sound and fury Monday, only 17 lawmakers voted against a bill to provide $216 million in COVID-19 relief to businesses impaired by the governor’s Nov. 20 executive order.

The bill, Senate File 31 — passed during the seventh and final special session of 2020 — also includes a 13-week extension to unemployment benefits for about 125,000 Minnesotans. Those benefits were set to expire by the day after Christmas. Gov. Tim Walz was expected to sign it Tuesday.

Much of Monday’s floor debate involved GOP lawmakers pinning blame for Minnesota’s COVID-19 miseries directly on Gov. Tim Walz. Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, charted the outermost extremes of that rhetoric.

Dubbing him “Dictator Walz,” Drazkowski accused the governor of making businesses captive to his executive action, only to “throw them some crumbs” in the form of relief legislation aimed at keeping them temporarily pacified.

“First government controls people,” he said, “then it feeds them.”

DFL lawmakers, he added, played into the governor’s game by championing SF31, which among other things, he said, “pays for people not to work for 13 weeks.” A five-week unemployment extension, Drazkowski asserted, would have been plenty.

“The socialist-loving Democrats love this shutdown stuff,” he said. “They love people to be dependent on government.” GOP leaders and members who participated in crafting the legislation — including Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, and Rep. Barb Haley, R-Rochester — are “misguided Republicans,” he said.

The debate also was notable for marking the emergence of Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, as a public critic of the governor’s emergency authority.

Bakk, the most recent past Senate DFL leader and the Senate’s newly tapped Capital Investment chair, criticized Walz for the, “I think, mostly, unintended consequences,” of his executive orders.

Among those, Bakk mentioned businesses being forced to close despite demonstrating a capacity to operate safely, and elementary school students deprived of in-person teaching at a key point of their brain development.

Bakk also blasted the rushed legislative process necessitated by the governor’s Executive Order 20-99, which ordered gyms and other public accommodations closed while eliminating most on-site services for bars, craft breweries and restaurants.

He ultimately voted for the package. But Bakk asked Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, and his successor DFL Senate leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, not to bring any similar bills to the floor without thorough committee vetting. SF31 was the product of weeks of back-room negotiations, mostly involving just a handful of House and Senate members.

“If the governor decides he wants to extend his emergency orders,” Bakk said, “he shouldn’t just assume we’re going to pass another $200 million of cash that, frankly members, we probably don’t have sitting around here when we start putting this next budget together.”

Not all conservatives were that sharply critical, however. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, while concerned about the level of power concentrated in Walz’s hands, called the bill “a step in the right direction.”

He also suggested that fellow Republicans are playing a losing game by trying to publicly excoriate the governor into surrendering his emergency powers.

“I would ask just one question,” he said to them. “What is your plan in opposition to this bill? Because it’s pretty clear that the constant strategy of beating Tim Walz over the head with a political pipe ain’t working.”

The bill passed the Senate at around 7 p.m. Monday, by a 64-4 vote; only four GOP senators voted no. In the House, it passed at 11:20 p.m., by a 113-14 vote. Only Republicans voted against it in the lower chamber.

Unemployment provisions

The bill includes a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits to about 125,000 Minnesotans, whose benefits otherwise would run out on Dec. 26.

Under existing law, laid-off workers can receive up to 26 weeks of regular state unemployment insurance benefits. With the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Minnesotans exhausted their regular benefits without finding new work.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided them an additional 13 weeks of aid — that is the extension that expires on Dec. 26, if Congress fails to pass another unemployment extension.

SF31 bill is meant to fill the breach in case Congress and President Donald Trump fail to reach an accord. “This is a gap-filler,” said Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, who authored the House bill in his last legislative act before retiring. “This is a bridge.”

Workers will collect an average of $400 a week, to be paid out of the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. It goes to those whose benefits will run out anytime between Dec. 19 and April 10.

According to a House research memo distributed to the press, the Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates the extension will cost about $40 million per week, or $520 million over 13 weeks. But if Congress passes a new relief bill, there is some expectation that the feds would assume those payments and reimburse the state for up to 90% of what it spends for the extension.

This bill does not apply to independent contractors awarded unemployment benefits through the CARES Act’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. Nor will high schoolers qualify, despite being recently found eligible for the program by the state Court of Appeals.

Business grants

The bill also approved $216.5 million in direct assistance to small businesses and nonprofits affected by Walz’s Nov. 20 order.

It includes:

  • $88 million directly to restaurants, bowling alleys, coffee shops, breweries, bars, fitness centers and other businesses that either have been closed or curtailed by the governor’s order. Checks will be sent from the Department of Revenue directly to eligible businesses — those that have lost 30% in year-over-year revenue since 2019. Grant size will depend on the number of employees. Companies with up to 20 employees will get a $15,000 grant, while companies with more than 300 employees will get the maximum $45,000 grant. Home-based businesses with no outside employees would get $10,000.
  • $14 million to movie theaters and convention centers, to be distributed by DEED. Of that, $9 million will be apportioned to cinemas by the number of movie screens they have. One- or two-screen theaters will get $15,000 per screen, while larger theaters get $10,000 per additional screen — up to a maximum of $150,000. Convention centers around the state get the remaining $5 million; their maximum grant is $500,000.
  • $114.5 million from counties to local businesses. This pot of money will go to the state’s 87 counties at a rate of $19.25 per resident, or $250,000, whichever is greater. (Hennepin County gets about $25.5 million.) Counties will have wide latitude to distribute money to almost any struggling business that needs help — including those that also receive Department of Revenue grants through the same legislation. But counties may use no more than 2.5% of the money they receive for administrative costs.

Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, the bill’s lead Senate author, called the county provision the bill’s “catch-all bucket.” It would, for example, allow businesses that lost only 28% of revenue year-over-year, rather than the threshold 30% loss, to get help. “This is where we get flexibility,” he said.

Perhaps it is a little too much flexibility for some.

During floor debate, Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, asked the bill’s House author whether it allows counties to send money to “adult entertainment stores” — businesses that Miller said are a locus of sex trafficking.

“Only if the county commissioner wants to lose his or her election,” Mahoney replied.

Though the Senate adjourned sine die just after 7 p.m., the House remained in business until around 2:15 a.m., Tuesday morning, taking up matters that — because of the Senate’s adjournment — had no chance of passage.

That late House business included a motion to suspend the rules and take up the usual GOP effort to suspend the governor’s emergency powers. That motion lost by a 62-63 vote, well short of the required 90 votes. The Senate earlier voted 40-25 to terminate Walz’s peacetime emergency authority.

The regular legislative session begins in three weeks.

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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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