ST. PAUL — State lawmakers on Thursday, March 26, will return to the Capitol to take up a slate of policy provisions and $356 million in possible funds aimed at combating coronavirus in the state.
They will decide whether Minnesota workers could see their paid leave become freed up to use for COVID-19 related time off, if Minnesotans with expired drivers licenses could have penalties waived, whether child care providers could see funding support for keeping their doors open and if needy families could get $500.
The move to return to the Capitol comes after lawmakers on March 17 went into recess, citing concerns about the growing outbreak of COVID-19 in Minnesota, but they left open the ability to come back into action if they needed to craft emergency response bills. A fraction of the legislative body will return to the Capitol Thursday to reach the number needed to cast votes.
And the scene will be quite different than a typical day at the Legislature during the legislative session. The public will be asked to watch remotely and lawmakers will be spaced out in each chamber. Reporters will have limited access to the legislative chambers to prevent crowding.
The measures were taken with health officials' guidance to promote social distancing and mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 at the Capitol. As of Wednesday, 287 cases had been reported in Minnesota, one was a person who worked in the House of Representatives.
"We are continuing to work closely with the Walz Administration on urgent COVID-19 matters to protect the health and well-being of Minnesotans. We will publicly release details on specific legislation on the House and Senate websites as soon as we can," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a joint statement late Wednesday.
One of the top tasks for legislators will be weighing a $356 million supplemental budget request that Gov. Tim Walz put forward earlier this week. The proposal creates a $200 million COVID-19 response fund, boosts support to child care providers, food banks, homeless shelters and state funding for low-income individuals, the elderly and those with disabilities.
The plan would help fund motel beds for homeless individuals exposed to COVID-19 or with symptoms of respiratory illness. It would also give a $9 million boost for regional food banks and 400 food shelves around the state. The funding would also help pay to transport food around the state to elderly, disabled and quarantined Minnesotans.
Lawmakers will also take up some of the top issues raised by people around the state who've lost work, got sick, had to stay home with kids or otherwise adjust their lives as COVID-19, the sickness stemmed by the coronavirus, spread. and they'll decide whether to extend the governor's authority in a peacetime emergency.
Since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the state earlier this month, Walz limited social gatherings, shuttered restaurants, bars and other social activities along with Minnesota schools to limit the disease's spread. And Wednesday, the governor announced he would ask Minnesotans to stay at home unless working in critical fields or completing certain tasks or activities.
And that elicited split responses from leaders in the divided Legislature. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he had "grave concerns" about how the order could impact businesses and families.
In response to prior executive orders temporarily shutting down restaurants and bars, other GOP lawmakers called the moves and overreach by the DFL governor. Walz defended the moves, saying he made them in the best interest of Minnesotans' health and using science to determine whether they were needed.
The Minnesota House of Representatives is set to return to the floor at Noon on Thursday while the Senate plans to meet at 2 p.m.
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