Legislature in sync on COVID relief for businesses, but still no agreement on unemployment benefits

The Legislature will reconvene Monday for its seventh special session of 2020 due to Gov. Walz authorizing another one-month extension of his COVID-19 emergency order. It is anticipated that the Legislature will pass a relief package aimed at businesses and employees impacted by the latest executive order that has closed or reduced operations for bars and restaurants, fitness centers, bowling alleys and other businesses. Although a global agreement has not been reached, the issues on the table include (but are not limited to) grants to businesses, extension of unemployment benefits, and emergency grants for child care providers.

On Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Jobs and Economic Development Committee held informational hearings on the various pieces being negotiated. The proposal that appears to have the highest level of bipartisan, bicameral support is $216.5 million in relief for businesses impacted by the latest executive order enacted Nov. 18. This includes:

  • $100 million for direct grants to restaurants, bars, breweries and wineries, gyms, and other similar businesses. Eligible businesses will receive grants of $10,000 to $45,000 depending on the number of employees they have. These grants will be sent directly and immediately to employers through the Department of Revenue.
  • $14 million for grants to convention centers and movie theaters. Of that, $9 million is available for movie theaters, which will receive $15,000 per screen up to $150,000, and $5 million will be available for convention centers with capacity of 1,500 or more (this is limited to the approximately 10 statewide or regional convention centers located across the state).
  • $102.5 million will be made available to and administered by counties to provide direct aid to local businesses based on the county’s population. Counties will receive the greater of $200,000 or $17.30 per capita. Eligible businesses must be directly or indirectly affected by the restrictions from the Nov. 18 executive order. Businesses that receive a direct grant under the first program are also eligible to apply to their local county for an additional grant.

The area of a potential COVID-19 relief package where there is not yet agreement is what the state needs to do regarding an extension of unemployment benefits. The House proposes extending benefits for an additional 13 weeks, with an end date of April 24. The Senate proposes extending benefits an additional five weeks, with an end date of March 20. Legislative leaders are continuing to negotiate on this issue with the hope of reaching an agreement before or during next week’s special session.

Another area under consideration is a new round of emergency grants for child care providers. Since March, the state—through the federal CARES Act funds—has provided monthly direct aid to child care providers who have seen reduced enrollment due to families removing their children from care during the pandemic or providers who are taking care of the children of frontline health care workers. With the expiration of the CARES Act funding, the monthly emergency grants will end this month. The House proposes extending the grant program with a $53.1 million appropriation. The Senate has not agreed to this proposal or put forth an alternative. This remains a part of the ongoing negotiations.

All these proposals would be paid for through the recently announced $641 million budget surplus for this biennium. These expenses could also be reimbursed if Congress passes a federal COVID-19 relief bill.