Legislative shutdown on table. Who loses?

By: Sheila Regan, Freelance Community Journalist

  • The Minnesota State Legislature recently passed a $21 million COVID-19 response package, but as the virus spreads, and the Minnesota State Legislature keeps open a possibility of shutting down session, others worry that under-represented communities might be left in the lurch.

With so many events and spaces shutting down, the Minnesota State Legislature is considering the same, which will leave historically under-represented groups out in the cold.

Minnesota House of Representatives Speaker, Rep. Melissa Hortman, addressed that question to reporters on Wednesday, March 11. “We absolutely are considering all scenarios,” Hortman said, noting she and Sen. Paul Gazelka, Majority Leader of the Minnesota Senate, were in constant contact with each other as well as the Minnesota Department of Health, leadership in other states, and looking at CDC guidelines. “We’re tracking very carefully what the things are that we could consider, and at what timeline,” Hortman said. “We would want to consider those things and it is our hope that we’ll be acting in concert with regard to any decisions we would make on the Capitol Complex.” 

Hortman stopped short of saying the Minnesota legislature has decided to take drastic measures, like ending the session early or cancelling it altogether. However, her statement makes it clear such measures are not outside the realm of possibility:
“I would say everybody is working as quickly as they can to make sure that we get the things done that we absolutely need to get done this session,” Hortman said. “And then if we would need to adjourn early, we would be ready to do that.” 

David Schmidtke, the Deputy Director/Collections Services Group Manager for the Minnesota Legislative Library, said there is precedent for the legislature to end in early April, though he couldn’t recall during his own tenure an instance this measure was taken as a response to a worldwide event. The 1996 session, for example, ended on April 3rd, with a special session to address K-12 education appropriations and other unfinished business. In 1986, the legislature adjourned “without completing action on budget, revenues, and farm security loan guarantees,” according to the Library’s website

“It certainly has happened,” Schmidtke said. “But there’s no reason on the top  of my head besides that they just got business done.” Schmidtke notes that in 1918, the year of the Spanish Flu, there was no legislative session, but that was because in that era the legislature only met every other year, and that was an off-year. 

No doubt, we are living in a moment of grave uncertainty. The existential threat of the Covid-19 pandemic threatens the health, well-being and lives of citizens throughout Minnesota, with seniors and those with pre-existing conditions particularly vulnerable. Add to that the fact that 4.7 percent of Minnesotans don’t have health care, according to the American Community Survey, and we have the makings of a disaster movie on our hands. 

And yet, there is a lot at stake before our lawmakers. If the Minnesota legislature decides to end early for public health reasons, given we have a budget and a surplus, it could be disastrous for equity initiatives like increasing teachers of color in our schools, providing mental health services for students, combatting skyrocketing prescription drug prices, and post-conviction relief. As a Minnpost article by Brett Grant, of Voices for Racial Justice, Paul Spies, from Metro State University, and Josh Crosson, of EdAllies points out, there is imperative work to be done by Minnesota lawmakers to address the needs of communities of color and indigenous communities. That includes everything from stopping “lunch shaming,” for students who have lunch debt, ending driver’s license suspensions for unpaid traffic tickets, and taking steps to increase teachers of color in the classroom. 

Brett Grant is a Boardmember for The UpTake. The UpTake’s Board of Directors has no editorial control over our content.

Unfortunately, virtual or remote sessions are not permissible under current rules and the state constitution, something that should be considered for future pandemics. Meanwhile, senators and legislators need to work quickly and efficiently to address inequities that many in our state still face, made all the more urgent given our current uncertain times. 

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