Minnesota lawmakers to reconvene Thursday for coronavirus response bill

Minnesota lawmakers will reconvene Thursday to pass a coronavirus response bill, but the details of the legislation remained shielded from public view just 24 hours before the planned session.

Lawmakers have been meeting on private conference calls to hash out coronavirus-related policies. None of the meetings have been open to the public; legislative leaders revealed for the first time in a Tuesday afternoon news release that a week's worth of discussions had taken place.

“We are continuing to work closely with the Walz administration on urgent COVID-19 matters to protect the health and well-being of Minnesotans,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a joint statement emailed to reporters late Tuesday. “We will publicly release details on specific legislation on the House and Senate websites as soon as we can.”

Gov. Tim Walz has asked lawmakers to pass $356 million in funding for the state's coronavirus response, in addition to the $221 million the the Legislature approved before going on break March 17.

Informal groups have been working since then on legislation. In the House, the groups mostly follow the normal committee structure, with one major exception: the Democrats would meet together for 40 minutes, and the Republicans would then meet separately for 40 minutes.

That allowed the Legislature to skirt Minnesota's open meetings law. The law generally requires legislative meetings to be open to the public, but it has an exemption for "a caucus of the members of any of those bodies from the same house and political party." 

The list of privately discussed bills is enormous and takes up eight pages on a news release sent out by Democrats who control the House.

No legislation had been publicly released by Wednesday morning. Other than the notices of House and Senate floor sessions on Thursday afternoon, no committee hearings had been scheduled.

The number of coronavirus cases in Minnesota rose to 287 on Wednesday, up from 262 the day before. But more alarming: the number of hospitalizations reached 26, nearly doubling the 15 people hospitalized the day before. 

Earlier this month, the Legislature signed off on $21 million for the state Health Department's response. But less than a week later, lawmakers had to plunge further into the state's coffers to come up with $200 million for health care providers to deal with unforeseen costs.

Now, Walz is asking for $356 million more. The bulk of the new money would create a reserve fund for state agencies to tap into. Additional pools of money would be available to child care centers, food banks and small businesses. The state is also considering whether to buy hotel rooms at an estimated $13.7 million cost to house people who are homeless.