Politics and Government

COVID-19 battle to color 2021 legislative session

People sit apart from each other in a room.
As some lawmakers work remotely, the ones who are present on the House floor stand for the Pledge of Allegiance Dec. 14. A fresh session of the Minnesota Legislature kicks off Tuesday.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

A fresh session of the Minnesota Legislature kicks off Tuesday with some new faces but the same power structure and a now familiar pressing item atop the agenda: how to respond to a health pandemic that has cost thousands of lives and knocked the economy off-kilter.

November’s election left Democrats with a narrower House majority and Republicans again in slim control of the state Senate. They’ll have to find common ground with DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who is halfway through his term.

COVID-19 will cast a shadow over everything, from decisions to legislative operations.

That will be apparent on the opening day, which won’t have its usual festive feel with chambers brimming with families, handshakes and smiles. Instead, lawmakers will take their oath in waves — nine at a time via Zoom in the case of the House, according to Speaker Melissa Hortman.

Another fight over emergency powers?

Walz still has Minnesota in an emergency posture, and he said in an MPR News interview Sunday that he has no immediate plans to relinquish executive powers that he’s used to manage coronavirus actions since March.

“We’ll see if they come back with a little different composition or a different approach to this,” Walz said of lawmakers. “I’ll continue to work with them any way I can.” 

But Walz said he’s not convinced that Republicans in particular are approaching the pandemic with the public health urgency it deserves, pointing to their hesitancy to get behind mask-wearing mandates and restrict activities susceptible to virus spread.

“They’re not going to get veto power over science,” Walz said.

Walz on latest in COVID-19 in Minnesota, new legislative session

There will no doubt be attempts to strip Walz of that power either in whole or pieces at a time. Similar efforts fell short in repeated special sessions last year.

Sen. Michelle Benson, a Ham Lake Republican who leads a key health committee, said it’s time for lawmakers to reassert themselves. A return to regular session will help restore some balance, she said.

“I think it takes away some need for emergency powers. I think the governor, if he felt an emergency public emergency health need, could bring it to the Legislature. It then could be vetted through our committee process,” Benson said. “We can move quickly when we need to.”

Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said there will naturally be a greater legislative presence in major decisions than was feasible during the in-and-out special sessions.

“We are a part of the game. It is our season to be at the state Capitol. It is our time to be setting a budget and being in conversation with the executive branch,” Hortman said. And so as full-time legislators we will be more engaged than we were during 30-day, intermittent special sessions.”

Hortman said lawmakers can shift the state’s coronavirus posture but that will require reaching consensus and passing bills that Walz would sign.

“I don’t foresee that the underlying tension of having a different approach on COVID-19 will go away,” she said.

In the early going, much of the Legislature’s activity will be conducted in virtual fashion or with very limited physical attendance. The Capitol itself has been mostly off limits to the public since last spring; some legislators have participated in hearings and voted on bills from their living rooms.

That will probably translate into a narrower agenda with fewer hearings and fewer bills.

The House will debut a new fingerprint-activated remote voting system later this week, which could speed proceedings a bit. Senators plan to experiment with hybrid hearings that will allow for some in-person testimony combined with access for people participating from afar.

There are some meaty first-week hearings on tap: Senators will examine the state’s guidance for reopening schools. They’ll discuss the effect the pandemic has had on disability services. Early next week, Benson’s health panel will delve into the billions of dollars in COVID-related spending so far, some of it from state accounts and other money from federal grants.

Benson said she’ll also press the Walz administration for more information on the vaccine rollout and why it’s not happening faster. She said the early phases have “had some glitches” and more transparency around the process is needed.

Walz said it’s the largest-scale vaccination push the state has ever seen involving public and private sector partners.

“My take is we can always do better. Our stuff is all transparent. It’s online,” Walz said. “We’ll be moving, I would think, in the next week or so past 300,000” doses administered.

He added, “We’ll keep continuing to push it. It’s just complex. Folks who sit on the sidelines and critique simply have no idea of the logistics going behind it.”

A new two-year state budget is the session’s only real requirement. The hardcore work on that won’t begin until March or later. That’s because another economic forecast will be delivered at the end of February. It will determine if lawmakers have a surplus to work with or a deficit to fix for a budget that will approach or exceed $50 billion.

They also have to redraw political boundaries based on the 2020 census, but that could get pushed off a bit if there are conflicts or delays in getting the required information from the federal government. The real deadline is early 2022 as the next campaign cycle begins in earnest.

The regular session must end by May 17. But the Legislature has made it a habit of blowing right by that and requiring special sessions to get the job done. The next backstop is June 30 because that budget must be approved by then to avoid a shutdown.

“It’s never a good idea to make vacation plans until August when you really care deeply about what the Legislature is doing,” Hortman said. 

“Here’s the upside though if your workload is based on the Capitol’s workload: By the time that we’re done and you’re safely able to assume we’re not going to bother you, so you can plan your vacation, you’ll probably have been vaccinated and you’ll be safe to go anywhere you want.”

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