How local lawmakers voted during chaotic, truncated 2020 session
While the state Legislature's 2020 session unfolded in a whirlwind of legislative activity, COVID-19 overshadowed many vital pieces of legislation Republicans and DFLers wanted to pass, which has left both sides frustrated and some sectors of the state in a lurch as a $2.4 budget deficit looms on the horizon.
Now that the special session is over, Minnesotans have a clearer picture of how state politics shook out during an unusual and tumultuous 2020.
The short of it? A lot was left on the table. Republicans and DFLers were unable to find common ground on huge pieces of legislation, which included the 2020 bonding bill — often the single-largest allocation of funding every biennium — as well as bills that dealt with law enforcement reform, and how the hundreds of millions in federal COVID-19 aid should be distributed to local governments.
Will they be addressed this side of New Year’s Day? Hours after the conclusion of the June 12-20 special session, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, tweeted he believed another special session will happen, but only when both parties can agree on some compromise in these matters.
In multiple discussions over the course of the spring, local lawmakers have pointed to a session that was chaotic, frustrating and ultimately cut far short by COVID-19. Some bills never got as far as they should have, such as provisions to re-up the Environmental Trust Fund, noted state Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore. Others were far too rushed with details left unexamined, as observed by state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, who pointed to the liquor omnibus bill. The liquor omnibus bill primarily dealt with the licensure of sales in particular events, locations and times across the state.
All in all, pressing issues were pushed to the background with the advent of COVID-19, they said, and that was before an international surge of protests and riots against police brutality that found its genesis in Minneapolis.
And, in the midst of this, the state’s $1.3 billion surplus vanished into an economic sinkhole with a $2.4 billion deficit projected for the next biennium.
So, with that in mind, below is a breakdown of some major and notable pieces of legislation lawmakers were able to pass this year.
A bill that allocated a further $50 million to the Rural Finance Authority — a key resource for farmer loans. Originally established in 1986 to counteract the farm crisis in the mid-1980s, the authority works with local lenders to provide large loan programs that farmers can use to address financial hardships, make capital improvements or for other kinds of assistance. The bill passed 65-0 in the Senate and 127-2 in the House in a measure backed by Gazelka, Ruud, as well as state Reps. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, and Poston.
With a 125-0 vote in the House and a 66-0 vote in the Senate, a bill to allocate $30 million to the Disaster Contingency Fund was approved with unanimous support. The bill was deemed necessary after a large number of natural disasters across the state since 2019 meant the fund was looking at a deficit for the first time. Local lawmakers joined their colleagues in both parties in backing this bill.
With a 126-8 vote in the House — where Heintzeman, Lueck and Poston all voted Yea — and a 66-0 vote in the Senate, the state of Minnesota has passed a law that would hold financial services providers, broker-dealers and investment advisers responsible to report financial exploitation they believe may have occurred or been attempted. This legislation was presented as a means to protect vulnerable adults and provide good faith third-party disclosures, the leeway to testify about alleged financial exploitation, delay a disbursement, or hold transactions.
All five lawmakers passed a Ruud-sponsored bill that allows 17- and 16-year-olds to operate an amusement park ride. This legislation includes training young employees on the ride’s operating procedures; specific duties of assigned positions; general safety procedures; specific procedures to follow in the event of unusual conditions or an interruption of operations; and evacuation plans for the amusement ride. The bill passed 126-5 in the House and 65-2 in the Senate.
With a 127-5 vote in the House and a unanimous 67-0 vote in the Senate, the Minnesota state Legislature passed its 2020 education omnibus bill, which allows the Office of Higher Education expanded powers to oversee, approve or deny state financial aid programs. The office would also be allowed to prohibit schools receiving state financial aid from withdrawing a student from class or suspending them due to an unpaid student account balance; collect a fee from schools for participation in the Statewide Authorization Reciprocity Agreement program; establish loan limits for the state’s student loan program; modify the state’s student loan forgiveness program for those teaching in areas with teacher shortages; expand eligibility for the Office of Higher Education’s Child Care Grant program; consult with a newly formed Tribal Nations Education Committee; require degree-granting schools to establish a process for student complaints; and make amendments to the Large Animal Veterinarian Loan Forgiveness Program. All five local lawmakers voted in favor.
The House and Senate both voted — 117-17 in the House, 66-1 in the Senate — to ban Trichloroethylene, or TCE, a chemical solvent, thereby becoming the first state in the nation to outlaw its usage. TCE has been tied to cases of cancer and birth defects. All five lakes area lawmakers voted to support these provisions.
Recipients of Outdoor Heritage Fund grants will receive $117.9 million as part of the omnibus legacy finance bill passed 110-21 in the House and 67-0 in the Senate. The bill also includes a two- to three-year deadline extension on involved projects. The bill contains these provisions, as well as others funded by the Legacy Amendment via a three-eighths of 1% addition to the state sales tax. All lakes area lawmakers voted to approve this legislation in the House and Senate bills.
Lawmakers passed a bill — 131-0 in the House, 65-2 in the Senate — that included the creation of the Minnesota COVID-19 Fund, a temporary fund of $200 million dedicated to help state agencies respond to the outbreak and purchase urgently needed medical supplies and equipment. The bill specified any unspent funds would revert back to the state’s general fund by May 11, but an amendment pushed that sunset date to Dec. 31. All five of the area’s lawmakers approved these measures.
In that vein, the state Legislature also approved $330.6 million to support municipalities during COVID-19. The Senate voted unanimously 67-0 to support the measures, while the House voted 99-4 in favor. All five local lawmakers approved these measures.
In their judiciary and data practices omnibus bill, lawmakers in both chambers voted to provide safeguards protecting everyone’s civil liberties by restricting law enforcement surveillance of electronic communication data and evidence-gathering using drones. Under the bill, a law enforcement agency would be required to obtain a search warrant for the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle — or drone — unless an exception applies. The bill passed 131-2 in the House and 66-0 in the Senate. All five state representatives and state senators voted to approve these provisions.
The Minnesota State Legislature voted to raise the minimum legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 with an 89-41 vote in the House and a 43-21 vote in the Senate. Lueck and Poston voted Yea on these measures, while Heintzeman voted to oppose. Gazelka and Ruud both voted for approval of the legislation.
Lawmakers passed a bill to increase price transparency in the pharmaceutical business. These provisions apply to prescription drugs that cost $100 or more for a 30-day supply; brand name drugs with a price increase of 10% or more over the prior year or 16% in the prior two years, and generic drugs with price increases of 50% or more over the prior year. Heintzeman voted against these provisions, while Lueck and Poston voted in favor. Both Ruud and Gazelka voted in favor.
Both chambers were able to agree upon an education bill that implements reforms to special education by offering access to alternative delivery of specialized instruction services; requires teachers to have mental health and suicide prevention training before they’re re-licensed; and the implementation of evidence-based vaping prevention curriculum. It passed with 117 Yeas and 9 Nays in the House, as well as 67-0 votes in the Senate, where all five of the area’s lawmakers voted in affirmative.
Lawmakers agreed upon a human services omnibus bill that contains a variety of provisions related to child care, custody, support, foster care, disability services, community supports, civil commitment, maltreatment of minors, child protection and child support. In broad strokes, the bills provide stricter regulations on child screening, education and care, while also offering more robust forms of funding to caretakers of children in vulnerable positions. In the House, the vote was 124-6 and in the Senate it passed with 67-0. All five of the lakes area lawmakers voted in affirmative.
Passed a bill with provisions to protect poll station workers and voters during elections this year amid COVID-19. The bill authorizes local election officials to designate new polling places until July 1; allow employees of health care facilities and hospitals to administer absentee ballots to residents or patients in their facilities; and extend the period during which absentee ballots can be processed — to up to three days after the election — to give election officials more time to deal with what is expected to be an increase in absentee voting. The bill passed 122-10 in the House and 66-1 in the Senate. All five local lawmakers voted in affirmative.
Lawmakers passed the Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act, which provides eligible Minnesotans with diabetes up to three months' supply of emergency insulin, as well as assistance to help them secure a long-term supply of the drug. The issue took on national proportions when Minneapolis diabetic Alec Smith died in 2017 after rationing the life-sustaining drug, which has seen exponential price hikes in recent years. The Senate voted 67-0 to approve the measures, while the House passed the bill with a 111-22 vote. Both state senators, as well as Lueck and Poston approved the bill, while Heintzeman voted against it.
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .