On March 26, the Minnesota legislature returned from its extended break to pass H.F. 4531, legislation addressing the most pressing needs. The requirement for any provision to be included in the bill was to have agreement from each of the four caucus leaders, ensuring that each had broad bi-partisan support.
Despite the bi-partisan support, many have criticized the approach for the lack of public input in the process. While appropriating more than $330 million, there were no hearings to discuss the legislation, and neither an overview of the legislation nor the bill text was released to the public until minutes before debate began on the floor of the House of Representatives.
COVID-19 Minnesota fund
By far, the largest expenditure was the newly created COVID-19 Minnesota fund. Described by some as a COVID-19 slush fund, the $200 million appropriated to this new account is available for the commissioner of management and budget to disperse “to state agencies as necessary to (1) protect Minnesotans from the COVID-19 outbreak, and (2) maintain state government operations throughout the duration of the peacetime emergency.”
Also established is the Legislative COVID-19 Response Commission, comprised of 10 legislators, to review individual expenditures from the fund that exceed $1 million. If a majority of commission members from the House and a majority of commission members from the Senate object to a proposal within 24 hours, the expenditure may not be made. There is no similar mechanism to stop expenditures that do not exceed $1 million.
All expenditures must be reported to the commission on the 15th and the last day of each month.
Of the remaining $130 million appropriated, more than half is allocated to help struggling families and individuals.
- $30 million: Child care assistance through the state’s Child Care Aware emergency grants. This money is available for programs that prioritize spaces for children of essential workers, not for individual families.
- $6.2 million: Veterans and their surviving spouses impacted by COVID-19. Funds can be used for “emergency financial relief, hospitalization assistance, medical care or treatment, or any other COVID-19-related assistance as determined by the commissioner.”
- $9 million: Food assistance through food shelf programs. Funds will be provided to Hunger Solutions, which will in turn allocate funds to “food banks, food shelves, and transportation organizations” to assist in distribution.
- $5.53 million: Housing assistance. These funds provide a temporary 15% increase for the county housing assistance program under Minnesota Statutes, section 256I.05.
- $26.5 million: Emergency services. $15.2 million is available for shelter for homeless individuals; $5 million is for “hygiene, sanitation, and cleaning supplies” for sheltered individuals; and $6.3 million is for staffing for this population.
Help for small businesses and farmers
Recognizing the need to provide immediate help to vulnerable businesses, the legislature funded programs for small business loans, as well as made policy changes to help farmers and others.
- $30 million: Small business emergency loan program. This funding is made available for an emergency small business loan program established through Executive Order 20-15, with the intent of more quickly providing help to small businesses than is possible through federal SBA loans.
- $10 million: Small business loan guarantee program. In addition to providing funding for this program, the legislature reduced the maximum size of the business from 500 to 250 employees in order to be eligible for this program.
In addition to the loan programs above, certain local governments are authorized to issue loans to “retail stores, service providers, and hospitality businesses,” potentially making available millions of additional dollars to provide relief for struggling local businesses.
For farmers, the legislature expanded when farmers could access the disaster recovery loan program. Previously, funds through this program were only available when damage was due to “high winds, hail, tornado, or flood, or the weight of snow, sleet, or ice.” Additionally, the program now covers “the loss of revenue when the revenue loss is due to an infectious human disease for which the governor has declared a peacetime emergency.”
$11 million was made available to tribal governments across the state “for activities that mitigate the immediate health and economic impacts of COVID-19.” Each of the state’s 11 tribal nations may access $1 million. If any nation does not seek the funds, the remaining money is to be distributed equally among the participating tribes.
Driver and vehicle services
In order to increase the turnaround time for issuing drivers’ licenses and identification cards, $2.4 million was allocated for temporary staffing. Additionally, residency documentation requirements for REAL ID applications were eased and expiration dates for drivers’ licenses and identification cards were extended until after the peacetime emergency expires.
Additional policy changes
- Elimination of the 30-day maximum prescription for opioids;
- Reduction of application fees for licensure, registration and renewal for medical gas manufacturers and wholesalers;
- Establishment of emergency powers to the Commissioner of Commerce and the Office of Higher Education during the peacetime emergency;
- Temporarily waiving the requirements regarding emergency purchasing and equal pay certificates for certain state contracts;
- Codification of changes to unemployment insurance during the pandemic; and
- Delay of submission of fingerprints for background checks for essential workers during the peacetime emergency.
This Alert was authored by Andrea Rau, Government Relations Manager.