MN Legislature nears agreement for COVID-19 aid to cities, counties

Two women wearing face masks sewing masks
Grace Aspenson (right) works to create personal protective equipment for health care workers on April 28, 2020 at Frost River Trading Company in Duluth. Minnesota will distribute $841 million in federal money to smaller local governments under the federal CARES Act.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

Minnesota senators voted Tuesday to distribute $841 million in federal money to help Minnesota cities dealing with costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 62-4 vote would give every city and county in the state money based on their number of residents. It’s part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, and must be spent on battling COVID-19. This can include everything from buying personal protective equipment to paying worker’s compensation for first responders who catch the disease to preparing to safely administer the November elections. The money can’t be used to simply replace revenue cities have lost due to the recession.

“We have to get this done,” said Rep. Paul Marquart, a Dilworth, Minn., Democrat who helped negotiate the measure. “These local units of government have had these expenses dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The state House of Representatives is expected to also take up the same measure this week. Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday that he wants to get the money out quickly but is “concerned” about some of the specifics of the Legislature’s bill. Revenue Commissioner Cynthia Bauerly has been working with lawmakers on details of the proposal “to make sure it will be administered correctly,” she told a Senate committee Monday. 

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Any money that’s not spent by late 2020 has to be returned to the state to be used for statewide coronavirus relief, with the exception of unspent money in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, which would instead be redirected to Hennepin Healthcare and Regions Hospital. 

How the money will be distributed

The measure the Senate passed Tuesday distributes money to counties, cities and towns based on their population size. For example, each city would get about $75 per resident, which would add up to:

  • $32.3 million for Minneapolis

  • $6.7 million for Bloomington

  • $1 million for Worthington, Minn.

  • $257,000 for Ely, Minn.

Small towns would get $25 per resident. The smallest towns with less than 200 residents would get nothing directly, but could apply for reimbursement to their counties, which would get around $120 per resident.

Hennepin and Ramsey counties already got $316 million directly from the federal government under the CARES Act and won’t get any additional money, though cities in those counties will get funding.

A few senators representing metro-area districts voted against the bill Tuesday because they felt distributing money based on population wasn’t fair.

“We know that communities are not seeing the impact of COVID-19 equally,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. He pointed out that tiny Nobles County has about 77 times as many COVID-19 cases as similarly sized Wabasha County, but will get the same amount of money. Dibble said at least some of the $841 million should have been distributed based on need.

Lawmakers considered that plan, but ultimately dropped it as part of a compromise between the House and Senate, in which the House agreed to distribute money based on population in return for the Senate agreeing to fund cities in Hennepin and Ramsey counties in addition to the money those two counties got from the federal government.

“I don't care if you are little Martin County and you only have (20,000) people in that county, it's still a strain on the services that you're providing,” said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, another of the bill’s chief negotiators. “Everyone has gotten prepared.”

Walz said Tuesday that he shares the concern about counties like Nobles with bad outbreaks not getting enough money, but said we’re “not that far apart in agreement.”

If lawmakers pass the bill this week as planned, the money will be distributed to local governments by June 30.