Minnesota lawmakers at odds on division of $250M COVID fund

Published 5:55 pm Friday, October 1, 2021

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ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers have $250 million in federal COVID-19 aid to give away, but they can’t agree on how to spend it.

The Frontline Pay Working Group, a panel of lawmakers and members of Gov. Tim Walz’s administration, is tasked with figuring out how to divide the pot among frontline workers. The panel blew past a Labor Day deadline, and it was made clear Thursday that its Republican and Democratic members are still at loggerheads over who should get the money and how much they should receive, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

Republicans want to offer the tax-free bonus to those workers who they say took on the greatest risk by having close contact with COVID-19 patients: nurses, long-term care workers, hospice providers, jail guards and first responders, including EMTs, firefighters and police officers.

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“So many stepped up,” Republican Sen. Karin Housley, a panel member from Stillwater, said at a news conference. “But a few groups stood out to us (for their) sustained and intimate exposure to COVID every day.”

That’s estimated to be a little over 200,000 people, and Republicans are hoping for a $1,200 check for each frontline worker.

Democrats want to spread the money more widely. They would add people such as food service workers and janitors, who couldn’t work from home and who kept society going while putting themselves at risk of catching the disease, often with little protection. Unions suggest that pool would be around 670,000 workers, leaving around $375 per person.

“Something is better than nothing,” Troy Brown, a Minneapolis janitor who contracted the coronavirus, said at a separate news conference called by unions that back the Democrats’ plan.

Democrats don’t agree that $250 million should be the limit. They have suggested that the goal ought to be $1,500 per worker and that lawmakers should come up with more money.

Walz has indicated that his thinking is generally in line with his fellow Democrats. But when lawmakers established the panel, they intentionally forced it to be bipartisan. Of the nine members — three Democratic lawmakers, three Republican lawmakers and three Walz appointees — seven must agree. So they remain stuck, for now.