To say the 2020 Legislative Session was unusual would be an understatement. In February, COVID-19 didn’t seem like an immediate threat and Minnesota’s state budget was showing a $1.5 billion positive balance.
Fast forward to today, and the state is under a peacetime emergency due to coronavirus. We are also looking at nearly 30,000 cases of coronavirus in the state as of June 12, more than 776,000 claims for unemployment insurance since mid-March, and a $2.4 billion state budget shortfall.
And on May 25, George Floyd was killed at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. His horrific death has sparked global protests and deep conversations about the future of policing and the urgency to build a state where we all feel safe, regardless of race, religion, or region.
Policymakers came back into special session on June 12, triggered by the fact that Governor Tim Walz has renewed the state peacetime emergency for another month. Minnesotans are calling for bold action from policymakers, to truly listen to the Black, Brown, and Indigenous Minnesotans who have long called for justice, and to make a concerted, inclusive response to the economic and health crises that COVID-19 has brought on.
How did the regular session end?
Policymakers took several important steps to respond to the health and economic components of the COVID crisis during the regular session. Walz issued executive orders to extend eligibility and increase flexibility to ensure Minnesotans had continued access to health care, economic supports, and other essential services. The Legislature passed a COVID response package
that included additional funding for emergency child care grants, food shelves, housing and homelessness services, and support for businesses.
However, by the time the regular session ended on May 18, several important issues were still at play, including investing in Minnesota’s infrastructure through a bonding bill; economic security legislation passed by the House that included provisions such as housing assistance and emergency cash payments to very low-income children and their families participating in MFIP; and economic assistance to Minnesotans who had been left out of the federal CARES Act.
Walz has emergency authority powers so that he can respond quickly to the COVID-19 crisis. He can only renew this authority for a month at a time; when he announced renewal of that authority earlier this week, he also called the special session which allows the Legislature to respond. While the Senate voted to rescind that authority, the House voted down an effort to end the peacetime emergency, which means it will be in place for another month. It is possible that, if the governor chooses to continue his emergency powers in future, that there will be additional special sessions called later in the summer.
Changes to Minnesota’s policing practices will be front and center during the special session. In response to the death of George Floyd, the legislators in the POCI (People of Color and Indigenous) caucus put forth a set of policy proposals
to change the way policing systems work across the state. These proposals range from changing the training methods that police are taught to investing in community-based mental health services. It’s well documented that Black and Brown people are disproportionately policed
, arrested, and incarcerated in our current criminal justice system.
State policymakers also need to support the rebuilding of the communities most impacted by the events of the past several weeks, targeting that investment to those who built those communities in the first place, and avoiding the loss of generational wealth and displacement that could happen without intentional investment. Passing the POCI caucus package and focused reinvestment dollars would be important first steps, part of action needed at multiple levels of government, which center the voices and experiences of Black and Brown communities and creates a Minnesota where there truly is justice and opportunity for all.
Policymakers also should act in special session on other unfinished business, enacting the following concrete steps that respond to the current public health and economic crises and prioritize the Minnesotans who have been hardest hit:
- Provide a one-time emergency assistance payment for families participating in the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP). This would provide financial resources for some of the state’s most struggling families, helping them to afford essentials like rent, food, and diapers. This policy would be good for our economy too, as the most effective way to provide economic stimulus is to get resources into the hands of those who will quickly spend those dollars.
- Provide COVID-related economic assistance to those left out. The “economic stimulus payments” paid directly to Americans through the CARES Act left out teenagers, young adults, and persons with disabilities whose families claim them as dependents on their taxes, as well as households in which a family member uses an ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number). These folks have been impacted by the coronavirus like other Minnesotans; the state needs to step in where the federal government failed to support these individuals and families.
- Increase funding for affordable child care. Minnesotans were struggling to afford child care before COVID hit, and access to affordable child care will be especially important as people are increasingly back at work. Policymakers should take the common-sense step of increasing Minnesota’s out-of-date reimbursement rates to child care providers and bring Minnesota into compliance with federal requirements.
- Support essential local services through financial support to cities and counties. The federal CARES Act passed in March allocated $1.9 billion to the state of Minnesota to respond to emerging needs due to COVID, and encouraged states to distribute about half of that amount to local governments. Local governments have faced increased costs as they seek to respond to the public health crisis; additional dollars means they can keep meeting their residents’ needs and keep important public workers on the job.
- Pass an equitable bonding bill that requires projects funded by state general obligation bonds proceeds to comply with human rights provisions related to gender and race equity in hiring, and that supports capital projects from community-based organizations that are led by and serve communities of color and Native Americans.
Time is of the essence. The COVID-19 crisis, and the longstanding crises in policing and racial inequity in Minnesota, have damaged our health, livelihoods, and communities. Policymakers must take bold steps to better ensure Minnesotans can stay healthy, safe, and get by economically in the immediate term, and invest in resilience in all communities for the future.