ST. PAUL — State lawmakers on Tuesday, April 14, ushered through the latest round of policy changes responding to the coronavirus pandemic along with an insulin program for low-income people and unemployed people. But partisan divisions emerged as the state entered its second month in a peacetime emergency.
Lawmakers in the divided Legislature approved a series of policies aimed at granting state departments authority to respond to the pandemic, allowing couples to apply for marriage licenses remotely, bumping out deadlines for Minnesotans to get new driver's licenses and covering the cost of COVID-19 testing under the state's Medical Assistance program for uninsured individuals.
The bill would also boost funding to food banks and require health insurance plans to cover telehealth services during the pandemic. The plan passed the Minnesota House of Representatives on a 103-31 vote and a 64-3 vote in the Senate. And Gov. Tim Walz was expected to sign it into law.
It's the fourth piece of legislation lawmakers have passed in response to the pandemic. And as they left the Capitol, lawmakers acknowledged they had more work to do in responding to the disease and softening the pandemic's economic impacts to the state.
Among the next round of priorities for Democrats were efforts to provide housing assistance to those struggling to pay for their rent or mortgage and ensure hourly school workers get paid during the pandemic. Republicans said they'd continue pushing to re-open sectors of the economy where workers could get back safely.
In the House, Republican lawmakers also took up a proposal to thwart Gov. Tim Walz's effort to extend the peacetime emergency spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and authorize his use of executive authority. Two resolutions that would end the state of peacetime emergency came up short in that chamber, blocking their path to the Senate.
Republicans concerned about the governor's authority during the peacetime emergency said lawmakers should step up and reclaim their role in government. And they said the state ought to roll back executive orders closing businesses during the pandemic to relieve the strain on the economy. They didn't offer specific guidance on how that might occur without exposing workers to COVID-19.
“In our effort to save lives, we are killing livelihoods,” Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa and a member of the New House Republican Caucus, said. "Many many Minnesotans are becoming wary of this emergency right now."
Members of the House's minority party said the state had embraced social distancing measures and would be prepared to return to a more normal state of play in the state if the governor's orders were allowed to lapse. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, brought a separate order ending the peacetime emergency while keeping in place self-isolation requirements for high-risk individuals.
“We are here now, we are in session and we can work with the governor on these issues,” Daudt said, in support of the effort to roll back the peacetime emergency.
That plan failed on a party-line vote in the House. Democrats on the floor said lawmakers should listen to public health experts when deciding when to end executive orders limiting travel, business and social gathering.
“We are going to be top in the nation because we are doing the right thing, not because we are quitting,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said of the state's low reported rates of infection.
'Bipartisanship is on a ventilator'
Ahead of the floor session, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said the bipartisan dynamic at the state level had begun to fizzle much as it had at the federal level and she said she hoped legislative leaders in the divided Statehouse could continue working together.
"Unfortunately there's been a similar dip in the spirit of bipartisanship and the spirit of respect for the public health professionals by Minnesota Republicans. I hope that's temporary," Hortman told reporters. She noted a message Winkler sent her. "Late yesterday he texted me and said, 'Bipartisanship is on a ventilator.' And we're concerned."
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said GOP lawmakers who hold control of that chamber have continued to work with the governor's office and House Democrats to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic despite some disagreements on how to move forward.
“We passed a number of bills with unanimous support that needed to get done for COVID-19, the fact that we got insulin done right now, in the midst of this pandemic, speaks to the fact that we are working together,” Gazelka said. “Wherever we can agree we can move forward, and where we disagree, I’ll say that as well.”