'COVID adventure begins:' Minnesota lawmakers start 2021 session dominated by pandemic

Minnesota lawmakers kicked off their 2021 session on Tuesday, a session that will be influenced in every way by the coronavirus pandemic.

"Members, the 2021 COVID adventure begins," said state Sen. David Tomassoni, who left the DFL to caucus with independents and was elected Tuesday to preside over the Republican-controlled Senate.

For the third straight year, Minnesota has the nation's only divided state legislature. House Democrats are vowing to defend Gov. Tim Walz's pandemic-fighting emergency powers, while Senate Republicans oppose them. The two sides also have different ideas on how to manage a $1.3 billion projected budget deficit.

Instead of House and Senate galleries packed with proud family members, Tuesday's inauguration ceremonies were muted. Many lawmakers were sworn in from home or their offices using video technology. Only newly elected senators were allowed to bring one in-person guest.

At least eight Republican senators did not wear masks on the floor for Tuesday's oaths of office and delivery of election certificates. The senators were: Mark Johnson, Paul Utke, Justin Eichorn, Carrie Ruud, Jeff Howe, Andrew Mathews, Mark Koran and Dave Osmek.

A coronavirus outbreak hit the GOP caucus in November after a large, in-person dinner party, and then-Sen. Jerry Relph died of COVID-19 last month. In November, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he was "committed to protecting senators, staff" during the 2021 session.

State Sen. Matt Klein, a medical doctor, scolded the unmasked senators.

"Not only does it create risk for our neighbors but it sets a bad example of leadership in an area where easy and good leadership would be so simple to do – a mask on the face, showing our constituents that this is serious," said Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a Democrat, presided over the opening-day formalities in the Senate. At one point, a crowd of senators gathered on the floor, and Flanagan told them to leave the room after they had voted.

Now, the work begins. Republicans in the Senate have already scheduled hearings over the next week aimed at getting schools reopened and to investigate the state's slow vaccine rollout.

Republicans were frustrated Tuesday that Walz was not saying how he would loosen his closure order on thousands of businesses. Walz plans to make the announcement during a 2 p.m. Wednesday speech.

"If you know, tell us today, don’t wait for this big grand premiere showing that you might want to have at 2p.m. on Wednesday," said state Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar. "Do it now because that’s when we really need to have this information."

GOP senators plan to hold at least some in-person meetings this spring, while the Democratic-led House will conduct its business virtually. The House has installed technology that allows lawmakers to vote remotely using their fingerprint.

The public will be physically shut out of the process. It's not clear how committee chairs will allow public testimony from afar. A security fence that has cost taxpayers $80,000 surrounds the Capitol.

At any moment, lawmakers can call a vote on Gov. Tim Walz's emergency powers, which he has used to shutter thousands of businesses in an effort to control the virus spread. The GOP-controlled Senate has voted several times to end Walz's power, but House Democrats have blocked such efforts in their chamber.

"We do believe very strongly that the governor should work with the Legislature. Most Minnesotans believe that," said House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt. "It’s impossible for member of public to reach out to governor’s office and have any meaningful conversation or input."

House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Democrats were willing to make some changes to Minnesota's emergency powers law, including a change allowing landlords to evict problem tenants. (Walz has ordered an eviction moratorium.) But Hortman said the House would block GOP efforts to strip Walz entirely of his powers.

"That is something I feel very comfortable that we will be upholding," Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, told reporters.

Two months from now when budget work begins, lawmakers will have to grapple with a $1.3 billion projected deficit. The regular session ends May 17, but lawmakers have typically needed a special session to finish the budget. If they're not done by June 30, the government shuts down.