Legislative Update: March 16, 2020

State Updates

Changes to the legislative schedule announced

The leaders of the four legislative caucuses announced changes to the legislative schedule in response to the COVID-19 pandemic at a press conference today. The four caucus leaders: House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park; House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown; Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka; R-Nisswa; and Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, issued the following joint statement.

“Over the next few weeks, the Minnesota Legislature will continue to work, but by alternative means. We expect to operate efficiently and safely to aid Minnesotans with COVID-19 preparedness and response, and to continue our work to address other pressing needs of the state. While it’s important that we remain in session to swiftly respond to the needs of Minnesotans at this time, we will fully comply with Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) guidelines including social distancing, limiting large gatherings, telework, and increased cleaning measures.”

“The Legislative bodies and committees will meet in floor and committee session on an on-call basis from March 16 through April 14. This means there will not be standing floor and committee meetings, but we will meet on the House and Senate floors and in committees with advance notice to members and to the public. All meetings will be held in spaces that allow six feet of distance between individuals. We will implement telework arrangements for legislative employees where it is possible to do so. We encourage Minnesotans to continue to reach out to their legislators by email, telephone and mail during this period while we are operating via alternate means. We intend to take up legislation on the House and Senate floors during this time period only by agreement of the House DFL, House GOP, Senate DFL and Senate GOP caucus leaders.”

“We are working together to ensure the safety of our members, our staff, and the public at this time.”

Specifically related to the House and Senate higher education committee meetings that were scheduled for this week, committee staff has said that all higher education hearings are cancelled until further notice.

At today’s press conference legislative leaders said that there will be limited access to the Capitol in the short-term, while they determine what needs to get done. They emphasized that this is not a recess, and they are still working, but the work will be determined by space. This includes things like members on the House floor. Speaker Hortman said only half the members will be allowed on the House floor at a time so that there is adequate space for social distancing. When voting on a bill, members will take turns entering the chamber and will indicate their vote with a thumbs up or thumbs down.

The three buckets legislative leaders said where their focus will be includes COVID-19 legislation, mission critical legislation that includes a bonding bill, and any bi-partisan agreement.

The latest news comes after many busy days of announcements about state action to deal with the health crisis. On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order declaring a peacetime emergency and urged the House and Senate to quickly put together a response package to the COVID-19 pandemic. Another executive order was issued Sunday authorizing a March 18-27 shutdown of K-12 schools so school officials can make long-term plans for the “continuity of education and essential services.” House and Senate leaders anticipate voting on a bill later today to fund hospital needs responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federal Update

Student Loan Interest Waived

On Friday, President Trump announced new measures aimed at easing the burden of student loans. “I’ve waived interest on all student loans held by federal government agencies, and that will be until further notice,” Trump said. According to the Department of Education under the policy, any borrower with a federal loan, including those in income-driven repayment and in forbearance, will have interest waived until the temporary policy ends. The department does not know exactly how long the policy would be in effect. The interest will be waived automatically, the spokesperson said, and the policy will be put into effect this week, retroactive back to Friday.

Economic Relief Package

On Saturday morning, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly (363-40) passed an economic relief bill for COVID-19, dedicating tens of billions of dollars for paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, free testing and other measures to help Americans impacted by the crisis. The legislation also provides free food for children whose schools are closed, as well as additional initiatives to make sure seniors and food banks receive assistance. Higher education was not specifically mentioned in the bill. The moratorium on student loan payments, which was discussed, was not included in the final bill. The measure is expected to be passed in the Senate this week and signed by President Trump.

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