ST. PAUL — Although the landing page of the U.S. Department of the Treasury promises "fast and direct economic assistance" (emphasis theirs) from the nearly unanimously passed federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, state legislators failed to pass the needed bill in their special session last week that would have distributed Minnesota's allotment of CARES Act funding to counties and cities throughout the state.
Statewide, Minnesota local governments are eligible for a total of $841 million in economic relief from COVID-19 — funds now in limbo as a result of political gridlock in St. Paul as legislators lock horns over which party's budget priorities will prevail. Distribution of CARES Act funding was among the purposes of the special legislative session, which concluded just after sunrise Saturday morning with virtually no progress toward reaching a compromise.
Based on its population, the city of Worthington is slated to receive $1,017,847 in CARES Act relief. This amount was approved by the Minnesota Senate, but not by the state House or by Gov. Tim Walz, during the just-completed special session.
Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson noted that the city only incurred about $20,000 to $30,000 in unexpected expenses as a result of COVID-19, but one of the acceptable uses for the CARES Act funds is to create a business recovery grant program for local businesses affected by mandatory shutdowns and loss of revenue.
"That's where we really intend the majority of these funds to go," Robinson said.
As a result, after reimbursement for the city's modest pandemic spending, the significant amount of remaining money could significantly bolster Main Street businesses. However, with CARES Act aid a bargaining chip for achieving the goals of party politics, the promise of local assistance remains uncertain.
The current version of the bill easily passed in Minnesota's Republican-controlled Senate, but when the Democratic-majority House received the bill, it tacked on a number of additional budget items that Republicans weren't willing to support, causing the bill to fail. Hours of negotiation did not end in a deal between the parties, and with the close of the special session, a Plan B is needed to get CARES Act funding in the hands of eligible Minnesotans.
Walz could simply distribute the funds through his office, Robinson said, but the governor's vision for the bill could mean a decrease in the amount of aid. Another option is to call additional special sessions until legislators are able to work together to come up with a workable solution.
While eventual receipt of funds is still absolute, relief from the economic effects of COVID-19 is now a question of how much each local government will get, when aid will be available and which uses of the funds will qualify.