Minnesota Legislative Update: Coronavirus Preparation and Response Takes Spotlight

Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP

As it has nationally and internationally, COVID-19 or coronavirus has been the focus for both Governor Walz and the Minnesota Legislature this week. On Monday, the House and Senate unanimously passed emergency legislation transferring $20.9 million from the General Fund to the state’s public health response contingency account. Governor Walz signed the bill into law Tuesday morning.

On Thursday, Governor Walz released his supplemental budget, a one-page document focused on replenishing the budget reserve, protecting Minnesotans from COVID-19, and preparing for natural disasters and leaving over $1 billion on the state’s bottom line. In releasing this budget, Governor Walz made clear that the knowns and unknowns of coronavirus were the focus of his supplemental budget proposal.

During the week, a number of legislative proposals designed to prepare the state for a coronavirus outbreak were introduced in the House. And by Friday, as the state’s number of reported coronavirus cases increased, legislative leaders were conferring with the Walz Administration and the Minnesota Supreme Court on how best to protect legislators, staff and the public who visit the Capitol complex. These proposals included restricting public access and extending the legislative break currently scheduled for April 3-13.

On Friday afternoon, Governor Walz declared a peacetime emergency and recommended that large events of 250 or more be postponed or canceled. Governor Walz said the health systems in Minnesota are in place to handle COVID-19. Both the legislature and public schools remain open.

Capitol Closed?

With the United States Capitol and state legislatures across the country closing or otherwise limiting public access, state leaders spent the week monitoring coronavirus’ spread in Minnesota and assessing options to protect legislators, staff and the public. Because activity at the Capitol complex is a shared responsibility between all three branches of Minnesota government, Governor Walz, Chief Justice Laurie Gildea and legislative leadership have been involved in these discussions..

On Thursday, House leadership postponed all legislative activity until Monday morning, when the House is scheduled to meet on the floor. In her press conference announcing the decision, Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brookyln Park) indicated that while she would like to see the legislature stay in session until its scheduled May 18 adjournment date – in part to allow for additional coronavirus response - the legislative agenda is on “warp speed” and should be narrowed to a bonding bill and a supplemental budget. The Speaker recognized that this narrowing impacted House DFL priorities including gun reform legislation, marijuana legalization, and additional education spending. She also indicated to Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka that tax cuts, a Senate Republican priority, needs to wait as well. The Speaker also is seriously considering a midsession hiatus — a significant lengthening of the Easter/Passover Break currently scheduled for April 3-13.

Late Thursday Senate Republicans decided to limit access to Senate suites and staff to appointment only starting Monday, March 16. Conversations about managing Senate committee agendas and meetings remain ongoing with decisions being made based on the latest guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Senate leadership made clear that in addition to a bonding bill and supplemental budget, the Senate still intends to move a tax bill containing social security tax cuts.

Legislative leadership also issued the following statement Thursday:

The four legislative leaders are working closely together and will continue to be in conversation through the weekend about the agenda for the session and how to conduct legislative proceedings in light of COVID-19. No further decisions have been made regarding Capitol access or legislative activity at this time, and we will provide timely updates if there are any changes.

This week a number of legislators made the decision to no longer taking in-person meetings instead opting for phone calls. In addition, three DFL legislators who are physicians outlined and shared steps to decrease transmission of COVID-19 in the Capitol without closing it down. These steps include canceling any large gatherings involving community members, not shaking hands, and creating cleaning and wipe down protocols for desks, door handles, and other high touch areas.

Governor Walz has said that he cannot tell the legislature what to do, he urged them to consider quickly concluding their business and adjourning.

Governor Walz Releases Supplemental Budget

On Thursday, Governor Walz released his supplemental budget proposal spending only $256 million of Minnesota’s projected $1.5 billion budget surplus while leaving almost $1.2 billion on the bottom line. This proposal came days after Minnesota Department of Management & Budget (MMB) released its monthly review showing February receipts were $41 million less than projected.

In releasing his supplemental budget, Governor Walz stated that his priority was to ensure fiscal stability and address emergency response and preparedness needs across the state while recognizing the knowns and unknowns related to coronavirus. Governor Walz’ supplemental budget includes $256 million in new spending on programs, replenishing the state’s rainy-day fund and $30 million to replenish a disaster response account ahead of potential spring flooding. He reiterated his support in passing a bonding bill this year.

Governor Walz acknowledged that his proposal does not include the one-time spending for early childhood education and child care that House DFLers have been pushing nor does it include tax cuts proposed by Senate Republicans.

A detailed analysis of the Governor’s supplemental budget can be found here.

State Announces Community Mitigation Strategies

Today Governor Walz and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm announced community mitigation strategies for Minnesotans in response to coronavirus. Governor Walz said he has been in close contact with governors from around the country and they are learning from what is being done in other states.

Commissioner Malcolm said that at this time, all cases are related to travel abroad and the point of the community mitigation strategies is to slow the impact. She reinforced that this is not a ban of going out or leaving home and it does not mean not shopping.

MDH recommends postponing or canceling:

  • Large events with 250 people or more
  • Smaller events (fewer than 250 people) that are held in venues that do not allow for social distancing of six feet per person
  • Events with more than 10 people where the majority of participants are at higher risk for severe illness

K-12 schools are encouraged to remain open at this time unless otherwise directed by MDH. Both Governor Walz and Commissioner Malcolm said that this recommendation is something that will be further evaluated and discussed.

Full recommendations can be found here.

Comprehensive Coronavirus Legislation

The House DFL released a number of proposals on Wednesday designed to help the state prepare for and respond to the coronavirus pandemic. These proposals include:

  • HF3980, authored by Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester), would establish a loan program to help health care providers prepare and respond to a possible pandemic. The bill has had multiple hearings in the Health and Human Services Finance Committee with the most recent being on Thursday, March 12.
  • HF4326, also authored by Representative Liebling, would explicitly authorize the governor to declare a peacetime public health emergency and allow public health emergencies to continue up to 90 days (the current limit is 30 days). The bill is scheduled for a hearing in Ways and Means on Monday, March 16.
  • HF4414, authored by Rep. Mohamud Noor (DFL-Minneapolis), would expand unemployment insurance and sick leave benefits during the outbreak of a communicable disease. Currently, there are no hearings scheduled for this bill.
  • HF4415, authored by Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Minneapolis), would ensure that hourly workers employed by school districts are compensated if they are unable to work because of COVID-19 — whether because of school closures, “non-essential employee” status, or because they are infected with the virus. The bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Education Policy Committee on Friday, March 13.
  • HF4416, authored by Rep. Jen Schultz (DFL-Rochester), would require health plans to cover testing, treatment, and quarantine costs related to COVID-19 so long as the virus is considered a public health threat by the Department of Health. Currently, there are no hearings scheduled for the bill.
  • HF4454, authored by Rep. John Lesch (DFL-Saint Paul), would ban price gouging during a declared state of emergency, making it illegal to sell certain goods and services — like medical supplies and consumer food items — for amounts more than 10% more expensive that the price charged immediately before the state of emergency was declared. Currently, there are no hearings scheduled for the bill.

Currently none of these bills have Senate companions.

A bill introduced last year, HF11 authored by Representative Lesch, would require employees to earn, at a minimum, one hour of paid earned sick and safe time for every 30 hours worked. It would also require an employer to reinstate an employee in the same or comparable position after the return from use of earned sick and safe time. This bill would go into effect 180 days following final enactment. This bill is waiting to be heard on the House Floor. No movement has happened on this bill in the Senate, indicating it would take immense work and willingness to pass this bill.

MMB Commissioner Myron Frans has said that the administration does have executive authority to provide administrative paid leave to state employees who don’t have enough sick time built up and have to self-quarantine or care for a family member.

Minnesota Department of Health Issues Guidelines for Businesses and Employers

MDH has set up daily press calls providing up-to-date information regarding coronavirus response. They have created a page on their website with information for businesses and employers. Recommendations include:

  • Ensuring sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of policies
  • Maintaining flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member.
  • Encouraging employers to find ways to expand working from home option as much as possible.
  • Encouraging sick employees to stay home.

MDH’s guidelines can be found here .

First Committee Deadline Looms

The first committee deadline — the date a legislative proposal needs to pass all policy committees in either the House or the Senate — is next Friday, March 20. While committees are continuing to schedule bills to meet this deadline, the situation could quickly change depending on legislative leadership’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. As the state’s response to coronavirus continues to evolve Faegre Drinker’s Minnesota government affairs team will continue to provide updates.

Important Dates

  • March 20: First Committee Deadline
  • March 27: Second Committee Deadline
  • April 3: Third Committee Deadline
  • April 3-13: Legislative Recess
  • May 15-16: GOP State Convention
  • May 18: Legislature Adjourns
  • May 30-31: DFL State Convention
  • June 2: Candidate Filing Deadline for 2020 Election
  • August 11: Primary Election Day
  • November 3: Election Day

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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