Legislature racing to pass hospital funding bill in response to COVID-19; operations curtailed

    Minnesota legislative leaders on Monday announced a curtailing of operations at the Capitol, which calls for telecommuting and other changes to slow spread of COVID-19. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer

    The Minnesota Legislature is racing to pass a hospital funding bill on Monday to address the rising need for healthcare services amid a widening COVID-19 epidemic. 

    State health officials have announced an overnight uptick of 19 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, for a total of 54. The development comes just a day after the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed the state’s first cases of so-called community transmission. 

    The three community transmission cases announced Sunday were the result of the virus passing to people who do not have travel history outside of the state, deepening fears that the coronavirus has firmly taken hold in the state. 

    During a hastily-arranged press conference, legislative leaders said they would pass a bill this afternoon to fund hospitals with upwards of $100 million to ensure medical facilities are prepared for an expected surge of COVID-19 cases. Lawmakers are still negotiating the details, and legislative leaders said they’d provide more information throughout the day. 

    Minnesota state leaders are in the midst of dealing with a widening pandemic that is causing the statewide closure of schools, cancellation and postponement of large gatherings and calls for telecommuting and social distancing.  

    New measures are now affecting the work of state lawmakers who are following suit of other workplaces across the country, announcing the suspension of standing floor and committee meetings starting on Monday through April 14. 

    Late Sunday, House and Senate leaders said staff who can telecommute will be instructed to do so, and lawmakers will take other measures to limit their exposure to the public. 

    House Speaker Melissa Hortman, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent held a joint press conference announcing their decision. 

    “It is not possible for us to continue a full committee schedule or normal floor sessions and observe the [Minnesota Department of Health] guidelines,” Hortman said at the press conference. 

    Lawmakers will hold committee meetings on an on-call basis. Hortman said these meetings will allow for at least six feet of distance between individuals, as recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s health department.

    Voting on measures will require reconfiguring committee rooms and taking advantage of House and Senate gallery and caucus space to keep members at least six feet away from each other. Typical voting procedures will be modified to voice votes and thumbs up or thumbs down indications. 

    These changes will limit space for the press and public’s to monitor legislation as it gets made. Legislation will only be taken up on the House and Senate floor with agreement from DFL and Republican caucus leadership. 

    Hortman said the legislature will focus only on three kinds of bills this session: COVID-19 response, a bonding bill and bills with wide bipartisan support. 

    The Minnesota Legislature is constitutionally obligated to adjourn by May 18, although Gov. Tim Walz could declare a special session. Monday’s announcement means lawmakers could face additional obstacles to tackle key issues, including insulin affordability, paid leave, tax cuts and gun safety. 

    Minnesota lawmakers were joined Sunday by their counterparts in Iowa, where House and Senate leadership announced a 30 day suspension on committee and subcommittee meetings. Lawmakers in Iowa will also meet on an on-call basis. 

    Walz also took drastic action to contain COVID-19 spread Sunday, announcing Minnesota public schools would be ordered to close starting on March 18 through March 27. This closure is meant to give schools and opportunities to make plans for remote learning. 

    A peacetime emergency declared by Walz would also call for suspending all gatherings of more than 250 people. 

    Gazelka said he’s supportive of measures taken by Walz thus far. Minnesota has yet to implement mandatory closures for all bars and restaurants, as Illinois and Ohio have done in past days. 

    “The steps we’re taking have been necessary I think if we’re going to bend the curve of infection rate, which is how we make sure some of the most at-risk people are going to get the care they need,” Gazelka said. 

    Madeline Deninger
    Madeline Deninger is a junior at the University of Minnesota. She covers for politics and state government for Minnesota Reformer as a Kaufman Fellow. She currently serves as city editor of the university's campus newspaper, Minnesota Daily. She's also worked at WCCO-TV and American Public Media.