Legislators cope with COVID-19 as session nears end
In the best of times, government is complicated, but add a global pandemic and things get infinitely more complicated.
This is what politicians in Minnesota, like every other state, are coping with. Legislators came into this current session with the advantage of projected $1.5 billion budget surplus on the wave of a very good nationwide economy.
It promised to be the base for revising the original budget when the surplus was predicted at $1.3 billion this past December.
But that changed quickly as the COVID-19 crisis shifted priorities at the Capitol and created a new complex way of government.
“Everybody had bills they were working on, but the reality is many of those are going to just have to fall by the wayside because emergency things have risen up,” said Rep. Peggy Bennett (R-27B). “The whole process is just to get through like everybody else.”
Introducing bills and governing the state of Minnesota has become a line of getting things done one way or another, complicated by the inefficient nature of how things in St. Paul are currently being done.
Work is largely done online through computer, phone or tablet, with floor sessions all but eliminated. Even then, the legislature has had to take extra precautions.
While the standard mode of business as the Capitol has been upended, some legislators have found themselves pleasantly surprised by the work still getting done.
“It’s kind of a whole new world,” said Sen. Dan Sparks (D-27) from the floor of the Senate Thursday morning. “Quite honestly, it’s going pretty good. It’s a little slower when you have to vote, but thank God for technology.”
Votes on bills or legislative action are done through roll calls mostly over the phone, but state law requires that a minimum number of representatives still must be in St. Paul. This is creating a situation where representatives are voting from the doors of the chambers, their residences in St. Paul if they live there, or even from their cars parked just outside the capitol.
“Everything is done by calling a roll call,” said Rep. Jeanne Poppe (D-27A). “Usually we have the board that you get to punch-in your vote to see if there is a quorum. People need to announce names and cities so they know who is where and be able to tabulate that and record that.”
Legislators are holding committee meetings, but they are conducting them through online platforms such as Zoom and they’ve managed to keep it pretty regular. The lack of being able to meet in one place to discuss or debate bills has been debilitating.
“Floor sessions are a little more cumbersome and difficult,” Bennett said. “We’re being encouraged not to come into the building, so most of us are taking part from home. There’s no way to speak on the floor. I feel like that’s pretty cumbersome. As a legislator, I look upon us as the voice of people. Most of us are connected close to home, and when that voice is muffled at all, that’s pretty serious.”
“People usually want to talk about it, discuss it, complain, support it,” Poppe said when it comes to bills. “There are people who want to talk about that and we’re not going to be on the floor.”
It comes down to what should be a focus of the Legislature’s work.
“We’re not meeting regularly and that’s understandable,” Bennett said. “Personally, I don’t think we should be debating bills that aren’t emergency bills.”
That still leaves plenty to work with.
Where to direct help
With COVID-19 hamstringing the United States, there are several areas of concern, including small businesses and farmers. Those two issues have swiftly risen to the head of the line as legislators have moved to help where they can.
Farmers have taken a real hit in recent weeks as packing plants around the nation, including those close to home, have either scaled back their operations or have temporarily closed all together, including the JBS plant in Worthington and the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
These hitches in the supply chain have left farmers in a difficult position as options for where to take their hogs have dwindled. Farmers are now being forced to consider euthanizing their animals, putting them in a deeper financial hole.
“Farmers are losing money every single day,” Poppe said. “They’ve already paid for that animal to feed it and take care of it and now they have to pay to euthanize it. That’s an added cost with no benefit.”
Poppe said that more is needed to help alleviate the stresses being endured by farmers.
“We’re trying to figure out funding for that,” she said. “For farmers this is obviously devastating and catastrophic. We have to look at federal funding to come in to help … to have some sort of reimbursement is something we have to work on.”
The session is scheduled to end on May 18, leaving little breathing room for legislators to finish the necessary work, but Bennett is confident that the work can still get done despite the long-distance legislation needed.
“We’re working on finding emergency funding for hog farmers,” Bennett said. “We can act pretty quickly, but it’s not ideal. We’re just kind of in a pickle right now. What we can do we should do.”
The need to help small businesses is also a major concern for legislators. Individual counties, including Mower County, have abated property tax penalties until after July 14. Many are hoping the state will also come through and do the same thing. However, the state can’t take action without changing the governing statute at a legislative level. Many legislators are hoping it’s something they can work on.
“I just think we need to do something with property taxes to give (small business owners) a break,” Bennett said. “I know a lot of counties are doing that. We should do the same with state property taxes but again whatever we do we do need to keep in mind we’ll just add to the deficit next year.”
In the Senate, legislators are also discussing ways to help relieve pressures on small businesses. Sparks pointed to the work that the counties have already done to help with that through the abatement of penalties.
However, he also followed Bennett’s thinking that there needs to be a cautious eye on the future.
“At the state level, we’re trying to find ways to get people relief,” Sparks said. “Remember, when we come out of the back end of this, there will be holes in the budget.”
And that’s something that’s going to be on the back of everybody’s mind for quite some time. Since the state shut down, that $1.5 billion projected surplus has been erased and the state is now looking at a deficit.
There has been some progress though. On Thursday, the Minnesota Senate passed legislation that would go directly to helping struggling businesses. The $327 million measure shifts the deadline for paying statewide businesses property tax by 60 days.
“Even buying them another 60 days of not having to pay some of those taxes could be the difference of them making it or not making it,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-East Gull Lake) in a report from Minnesota Public Radio.
Some Democrats worried that the bill is rushed because it comes ahead of the Minnesota Management and Budget’s updated economic numbers next week.
Poppe is also holding out hope that a bonding bill will be forwarded through to the governor by session end.
“We still intend to have a bonding bill,” Poppe said. “Both the House and Senate and I know the governor intends for us to have one.”
Like Poppe, Sparks believes there’s still time to get the bonding bill done, which would set aside money for critical infrastructure work, some of which affects Austin with its wastewater treatment plant renovations.
The added benefit is getting people back to work faster.
“We can put people back to work immediately,” Sparks said. “In Austin we have a big wastewater treatment plant that we’re pushing for, so I think we still have time to get something done, both Democrats and Republicans.”
To get through, members of the House and Senate will have to look at taking a new route there, and that includes trying to come to an agreement about what both sides want and then moving forward.
“I think there’s a little bit more; let’s come to agreement before we do that,” Poppe said. “I’m not sure if we will be passing a bonding bill that’s up for discussion. Let’s get to an agreement and that’s the bill we’re passing.”
“Especially when it comes to the coronavirus, that’s exactly what was happening,” he said. “Things were happening so fast. Both in the Senate and House in certain committee areas, were allowed to work through our differences as much as we could.”
What’s been lost — the future
As legislators shifted work to taking on the effects of COVID-19, many of the issues they planned on working on coming into the session have been at best pushed to the background.
Personal agendas by legislators are at risk, and for legislators like Bennett, that’s a depressing idea.
“Unfortunately, I had high hopes to give some tax relief to seniors on social security,” she said. “I want to get some help for the farmers, but all of those things cost money. Tax relief has a cost to the budget. That projected budget surplus is gone. I’m saddened because I really don’t see when we’re going to get any major tax relief.”
Poppe too has had some items that are getting pushed to the background. One such push was to get the state vet diagnostic lab new equipment that would go toward testing for African Swine Fever.
“We still have a need for funding for that,” she said.
And even though it’s down the road, the idea of how the state will conduct its elections is still on the table. Many Democrats are pushing for mail-in voting, which is getting pushback from Republicans, but even if there isn’t a consensus, it is something that will need the attention of legislators.
“There’s a push to look at can we do mail-in ballots because we need to make sure people are safe,” Poppe said. “Maybe we’ll get to a point where we aren’t as compromised, but we have to plan for the worst case scenario and that we’re still in a situation where it’s dangerous assembling in large groups.”
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