Bipartisan push for COVID-19 relief package shaping up at Capitol

Gov. Tim Walz, DFL, GOP legislative leaders unveil series of measures intended to help businesses, unemployed Minnesotans

Gov. Tim Walz stands outside of Casper's and Runyon's Nook restaurant in St. Paul. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

A bipartisan push for COVID-19 economic relief is shaping up at the Capitol, with DFL Gov. Tim Walz outlining a series of measures he wants enacted to support businesses affected by COVID-19 public health restrictions. 

A four-week “pause” that started on Friday has once again fallen on restaurants and other businesses. Walz cited the surge in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths for his newly-imposed restrictions that have temporarily shuttered indoor restaurant dining, gyms and indoor entertainment venues until at least Dec. 18.

Joined by legislators from the House Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus, Walz addressed reporters at Casper’s and Runyon’s Nook restaurant in St. Paul, a Twin Cities staple that has operated since 1938. 

Walz’s package — with a still-to-be-determined price tag — includes measures like providing direct financial assistance through the Business Assistance Program, first enacted in June; waiving state and regulatory fees for bars, restaurants, event centers and breweries; a business eviction moratorium; extending unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks; doling out $500 to low-income families enrolled in the Minnesota Family Investment Program; and giving one-time grants to restaurants to provide food for health care workers, shelters and long-term care facilities. 

“We know the first thing we need to do is provide relief to these businesses as quickly as possible,” Walz said, saying he hopes lawmakers can work swiftly. 

The Senate GOP, which holds the majority in the upper chamber, is also working on a proposal, but members and staff have recently dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak that has affected at least four GOP members and hindered their work. 

The House GOP put forth other proposals on Tuesday that they said were aligned with Senate Republicans. The proposals include direct cash assistance to businesses — $400 million to come out of the state’s budget reserve, which stands at more than $2 billion and would be backfilled with any federal funding if that materializes. One proposal would temporarily ease liquor restrictions, allowing restaurants and breweries to sell growlers, crowlers and other alcoholic beverages. Currently, restaurants are restricted to 750 mL bottles of wine or canned beer under a measure the Legislature approved over the summer. 

Minnesota cannot run a budget deficit, and despite the rainy day fund, the fiscal outlook looks bleak going into next year, when they’ll begin deliberating on a new two-year budget. Both sides appear to be banking on a quick economic recovery once this spike passes, and help from the federal government, which unlike Minnesota, can operate in the red.

Walz said he’s confident: “They’ll work their magic to find the package that we can all agree upon,” he said. “It needs to be centered, I think, on those basic principles, keeping these businesses afloat right now, making sure families in need are able to get that and then coupling what they do best, let’s feed the folks who need it.” 

Walz and DFL legislative leaders did not provide an overall cost to their proposals, saying negotiations are ongoing. Lawmakers are expecting on Tuesday to hear an updated budget and economic forecast from the state’s budget agency which will show how state spending and tax collection have fared since spring. 

Walz suggested the budget picture may not be as dire as initially predicted in May, when the Minnesota Management and Budget office forecasted a $4.7 billion budget deficit. Monthly tax collections have come in slightly higher than projected in recent months. 

It’s still unclear when lawmakers would meet to pass any economic relief. Walz said he is prepared to call lawmakers back into a special session — potentially the seventh such session this year — as soon as a deal is struck. 

On the liquor front, Walz indicated the loosening of restrictions would be complicated and suggested lawmakers focus on proposals that would meet the least amount of resistance. Republican lawmakers also called on Walz to rollback restrictions that have temporarily shuttered gyms and fitness centers, an unlikely move since Walz and the Minnesota Health Department cited data showing gyms had 48 outbreaks leading to 747 COVID-19 infections.

Walz is expected to call lawmakers back into session next month to renew his peacetime emergency declaration by another 30 days, as he has every month since April. 

But he said he may call a special session before then if lawmakers can hammer out a deal.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.