ST. PAUL — Minnesota legislative leaders and the governor on Tuesday, Nov. 24, said they could pass a package of financial relief for business owners and workers impacted by the most recent round of state restrictions.
The plan could fast track payments or grants to business owners around the state and provide a financial boost to unemployed workers and low-income families before the end of the year. Or it could crumble in the divided Legislature.
Tens of thousands of Minnesotans affected by the pandemic and the state's steps to quell it have called for rapid support to dull the economic blow they've felt this year. And many have said the closures of gyms, entertainment venues and limits on bars and restaurants last week have left them in dire straits.
"We're finally at the cusp where we can get some help from the state. We've been taking a 10-month bath right now," said Mike Runyon, co-owner of the Nook restaurant in St. Paul. "We're on the brink of collapse on this industry and we need everything that we can do."
Republicans in the House of Representatives rolled out a pitch to offer $400 million in grants to businesses, offer sales tax and fee relief, reopen gyms and fitness centers and temporarily let restaurants, bars and breweries sell growlers and take-away beverages beyond their current cap.
And in a separate news conference, Gov. Tim Walz and Democratic-Farmer-Labor House leaders said they hoped to roll out roughly $350 million in direct aid payments to businesses, extend unemployment insurance benefits to workers and provide tax credits and grants to businesses that donate food to the needy.
“The sacrifices they’re making can’t be for naught," Walz said about restaurant and bar owners affected by new measures. "We’re actually saving people by keeping them out of the hospital but we need to make sure that we’re taking care of these folks."
Contrasting with Republicans' plan and previous state action months ago, Walz stressed on Tuesday that Democrats’ latest proposal would give relief “to every single one of these businesses." House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said that skirting the grant process allows the state to distribute aid to the 14,000 businesses impacted by the latest round of shutdowns “very, very quickly.”
With federal CARES Act dollars from the springtime nearly dried out, Winkler said Minnesota’s state dollars need to fill in the gap as the country waits for another round of stimulus to trickle down from Washington.
“While we wait for federal action, Minnesota needs to step up and provide essential relief to the people most at risk of suffering the most devastating economic consequences of COVID,” he said.
Democrats' and Republicans' plans varied in whether to focus support on businesses or workers and on how a possible next round of federal relief funding could offset state spending from the rainy day fund. But on a bipartisan basis, lawmakers said the state should offer support as soon as possible. And they said they were optimistic they could reach a deal and get support to affected Minnesotans within 30 days.
“My hope would be that we could have money in their pockets within 30 days,” Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said. “Knowing that it’s coming for these operators and knowing we have relief on the way will allow them to sleep a whole lot better and they’ll be able to communicate to their employees that life is going to get better.”
Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said the governor hadn't consulted Senate Republicans before his plan came out Tuesday but members hoped to put forward a proposal of their own soon.
Business groups around the state said it didn't matter who came up with the ultimate plan but urged lawmakers to work quickly to get help out to business owners.
“The governor and Legislature must come to an agreement on a relief package as soon as possible," Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President Doug Loon said. "Tapping budget reserves will speed assistance to those who need it now, stabilize impacted small and mid-sized businesses, and save livelihoods and jobs. Minnesota’s main street economy needs this help now.”
State budget officials are set to give an assessment of the state's finances and projections for the upcoming budget year next week. Their findings could determine what lawmakers can afford to offer in relief funds.