Minnesota Legislature approves $330 million coronavirus bill

The Minnesota House and Senate rushed through a coronavirus relief bill Thursday afternoon, overwhelmingly voting to free up $330 million for the state to respond to the pandemic.

Lawmakers in the House, which voted 99-4, said it was the most bipartisan effort they’d seen in years. The Senate followed suit hours later, voting 67-0 to send the bill to Gov. Tim Walz’s desk.

The biggest part of the legislation is a $200 million fund that state agencies would have broad discretion to use to protect Minnesotans and continue government operations during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill also directs payments to child care centers, food banks and veterans.

“All of our members have received more public input since March 13 than most of us have received in the past 3 years put together,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman told reporters in an impromptu news conference outside the House chamber. “Minnesotans definitely made their voice heard.”

The votes happened the day before a stay-at-home order was scheduled to take effect across Minnesota, urging residents to limit time outside their homes. A second Minnesotan has died from the coronavirus, and 31 people are currently hospitalized.

The bill includes:

  • $200 million for a newly created “COVID-19 Minnesota fund,” giving latitude to Walz’s administration to respond to the crisis
  • $30 million in grants for child care centers (recipients are eligible for $4,500-$20,000 grants)
  • $6.2 million to provide money to veterans or spouses for hospitalizations, medical care or financial assistance
  • $9 million to food banks, allowing them to purchase more food, diapers, toilet paper or respond to other community needs
  • $15.2 million to create additional homeless shelter space, including vouchers for hotel or motel rooms
  • Up to $1 million apiece to 11 Native American tribes in Minnesota
  • Expands the list of acceptable documents for Minnesotans to prove state residency on a REAL ID application
  • Extends the expiration date for all valid Minnesota drivers licenses until at least 60 days after Walz ends his peacetime emergency
  • Waives the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits through December 31, allowing Minnesotans to get unemployment checks more quickly

The bill was posted online at 11:54 a.m., six minutes before the House was scheduled to gavel in at noon. Lawmakers met on private conference calls over the past 10 days to hash out details of the legislation, and the four legislative leaders reached an agreement late Wednesday evening.

Security at the Capitol was high for the vote. The second floor of the building, where the House and Senate chambers are, were off-limits to the public and reporters. Capitol Security guarded staircase landings on the second floor, preventing anyone other than members from accessing the floor.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler offered an apology of sorts for the lack of public input in the process, saying the debate and vote took place under “unusual circumstances.”

Some of Walz’s initial requests, which totaled $356 million, fell out of the final deal. Among them: $500 in emergency assistance payments to low-income Minnesota families with children, which Walz had estimated would help 27,000 families at a $14 million cost to the state.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they were concerned that the bill does little to help small businesses, first responders, and Asian-Americans who are facing discriminating amid the pandemic.

Thousands of businesses across the state have been forced to close in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus. Lawmakers said a $10 million loan program in the bill was inadequate.

“If we are going to bail out the state of Minnesota, how come we are not helping out those small businesses who without question are going to fail?” said state Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he wanted to see small business relief as a central piece in future coronavirus legislation. House Democrats have said housing affordability and pay for hourly school employees are among their top priorities in future bills.

Walz and lawmakers said Thursday they have grown concerned with the level of discrimination against Asian-Americans in Minnesota. The state’s hate crime hotline has received “lots of calls,” Walz said.

State Sen. Foung Hawj said he was dismayed about the lack of funding to fight racial profiling, and appealed to Minnesotans to behave differently.

“I’d like to ask everybody to be extra, extra Minnesota nice,” said Hawj, DFL-St. Paul. “I also ask my fellow legislators to help us calm anxiety in your own district as well.”

President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” The disease started in China but has since spread worldwide, and the U.S. is now one of the epicenters.