Minnesota lawmakers pass 13-week unemployment extension, business relief

Minnesota lawmakers struck a deal Monday to throw a lifeline to laid-off workers and struggling businesses through the financial strain of the coronavirus pandemic.

The legislation extends unemployment benefits for 13 weeks, averting a crisis for 100,000 to 125,000 Minnesotans whose benefits were set to end later this month. It also sends $216 million in cash relief to businesses.

The Senate voted 62-4 on Monday evening, and the House voted 117-13. Gov. Tim Walz said he planned to sign the bill "as soon as possible." Top lawmakers who negotiated the deal over the past three weeks said Minnesota needed to act because Congress had not.

"We don’t have any certainty whatsoever that the federal government will ever get anything done on this front," said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.

The unemployment benefit extension will run from Dec. 27 through April 10, at a cost estimated at $500 million to $550 million.

The business relief funding, announced late last week, includes about $88 million for businesses that've lost 30 percent or more of their revenue this year, $14 million earmarked for movie theaters and large convention centers, and $112 million for counties to dole out to local businesses.

Defy Walz's order? You could get a check

Businesses will be eligible for the grants even if they defy Gov. Tim Walz's closure order and open this week, as some are planning to do regardless of what Walz announces Wednesday. 

About 160 businesses are planning to reopen, with some starting Wednesday, said Darius Teichroew, who organized the ReOpen Minnesota Coalition. 

Walz's current order closing thousands of businesses runs through Friday night, and he has twice delayed a decision whether to extend it as Minnesota's infection statistics improve. The first-term Democratic governor now plans to make an announcement on Wednesday.

To receive a check, a business must be in good standing with the state Revenue Department as of Nov. 1. Lawmakers said adding a second verification requirement to stop scofflaws of Walz's closure order would have delayed checks from being sent to any business.

 "I hope if there’s 160 businesses that take funds and then defy the orders, I hope the attorney general acts accordingly," said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

But the top Republican in state government, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, endorsed the defiant business owners.

"I think those businesses should be allowed to do whatever they want to do," Gazelka said. "They’re trying to figure out a way to survive."

Gazelka declined to say if he thought businesses that defy Walz's order should receive a payment along with businesses that have complied.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is urging Walz to allow thousands of gyms, restaurants, bars and other businesses to reopen this weekend after his closure order ends Friday.

Some relief left out of final bill
Lawmakers rejected an amendment that would've relaxed Minnesota's liquor laws to allow takeout growler sales and cocktails to go, something that some breweries and restaurants were seeking.

Also left out of the final bill: a $500 stimulus check to 31,000 low-income Minnesota families, housing assistance, and money earmarked for businesses damaged by the springtime rioting in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The relief deal comes hours after the first shipment of coronavirus vaccines arrived in Minnesota. Walz said nearly 3,000 vaccines had been trucked via FedEx to the Minneapolis Veterans Administration hospital and some would be administered within 24-48 hours.

Lawmakers let Walz keep powers

The Senate voted 40-25 to end the governor's peacetime emergency powers,  the sixth time in seven special sessions it had done so. Four Democrats and the chamber's two independents joined 34 Republicans in voting against Walz.

But the DFL-led House has never gone along and blocked the effort again Monday, meaning Walz will get to keep his powers for another 30 days.

GOP Sen. Jerry Relph was "excused" from Monday's session and did not vote. Asked why, a Republican spokeswoman said Relph's family "has requested privacy."

Relph twice went to the hospital in November after being infected by the coronavirus during an outbreak in the GOP caucus.