WORTHINGTON — On Wednesday afternoon, coronavirus-inspired restrictions on Minnesota business openings eased a bit through a much-anticipated public announcement by Gov. Tim Walz.
Walz said bars and restaurants can open on June 1 for outdoor dining services only. Salons will be allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity, provided stylists wear masks and follow through with other safety measures.
But with the expected return of lawmakers to St. Paul by June 12, debates over how much power the governor should continue to wield will ramp up. State law requires the governor to call legislators to return for renewal of his emergency powers.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the elephant in the room in regular session as Republicans and Democrats attempted in vain to get their arms around an infrastructure bonding bill while considering tax relief for businesses and spending to ease the hardships business owners and employees face. Raises for thousands of state government workers were also left unfinished as a projected $2.4 billion budget deficit hangs in the air.
Coronavirus issues, said District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, made everything more difficult.
“It would take 15 minutes just to get through a roll call,” he said Wednesday morning, pointing out that about 70 percent of lawmakers worked remotely. “The vast majority of people were calling in on phones.”
Legislators on both sides of the aisle tend to agree they were disappointed with how much work was left undone before the May 17 adjournment, but Republicans appear united that Gov. Walz’s emergency powers need to be curtailed.
“I think that played into some of the final negotiations.," said District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne. "That slowed things down and made it harder to negotiate on bills that may get another shot next month."
If the legislature had been more involved in coronavirus-related decisions, said Schomacker, accommodations could have been made for small businesses deemed non-essential — including hairdressing salons and barber shops. If Walz is going to continue moving forward in his current path, Schomacker said he hopes legislators can at least be more engaged in the process.
“I do think it’s very much worthwhile for us to be able to be more involved,” he said.
Hamilton agrees. Nearly every Republican wants to rescind the governor’s executive order authority, he said, saying he was an early supporter of the authority early on. But when it came to the second extension, things changed.
Minnesotans grow anxious
This week, Hamilton said he has fielded many calls from frustrated constituents.
“The people who are most upset are the ones who are directly impacted,” he said. “It’s just terrible all the way around. It wears on you when you hear stories all day long, and people are just sobbing.”
He related the story of a woman who had planned to open up her own hair salon before the COVID-19 scare shut everything down. She had quit her job and was applying the final touches before opening her business when stay-at-home orders were made. Suddenly out of work, she tried to get unemployment but was unable to qualify because she had quit her previous job. She told Hamilton that she’s now going into debt.
Schomacker and Hamilton say that another important feature of the coming special session will be bonding. An appropriation for the Red Rock Rural Water project, from Windom to Lake Shetek, remains a key consideration as well as upgrades to the Buffalo Ridge Regional Rail Authority, which would allow heavier cars to move along the short line track in Nobles and Rock counties.
Schomacker said the tax bill is also a crucial issue. Businesses impacted by COVID-19 need a break toward re-investing in much-needed equipment — a consideration especially important in agriculture-related fields that often require larger outlays.
Also, the W.E.L.L. project (Welcome, Education, Library and Livability) involving the city of Worthington, Nobles County and ISD 518 still looms. The estimated price tag of the project is between $30 and $32 million, and though the city, the county and the school district committed millions toward the funding goal, it remains far short.
The W.E.L.L. project was included in Gov. Walz’s bonding proposal and its prospects appeared promising in the House, but the Republican-controlled Senate failed to pass its $998 million bonding bill on Sunday as the regular session came to a conclusion.