The 2020 legislative session began on Feb. 11 with a positive budget balance of $1.5 billion and a strong economic outlook for Minnesota.

Fast forward to mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic had completely upended the state’s economic forecast. The pandemic also forced the Legislature to change how we do our work. Virtual committee hearings became our new normal, and floor session procedure changed dramatically with social distancing and some members voting remotely. With the costs of dealing with the pandemic rising and less revenue coming in for the state, the state budget outlook swung to a $2.4 billion projected budget deficit.

The updated May budget outlook confirms what we suspected: COVID-19 has created unprecedented economic disruption. Our state requires a balanced budget, so when there is a shortfall, either more revenue is needed, or the budget needs to be cut. This $4 billion swing in the economy presented a clear set of challenges that needed to be addressed. I think we are up for that challenge.

While COVID-19 is an unforeseen and unprecedented crisis, Minnesota was better prepared to respond than many other states, due to sound management of the state’s budget over the past decade and our investment in a strong budget reserve. With new federal funding assistance available for the costs of responding to the pandemic, we can and should prioritize using our reserves before needlessly cutting the services, especially the ones that our most vulnerable depend on.

Investments are now needed to make Minnesotans secure in their housing, help small businesses, facilitate distance learning and telemedicine, and ensure we have the workforce we need to provide care for the elderly and people with disabilities. One of the biggest items left unaddressed is the state worker contracts — which had already been agreed to and simply needed us to approve.

We didn’t get that done, but have to, and soon. The House ratified the contracts, but Senate Republicans passed a bill that puts the negotiated contracts in jeopardy.

These pay raises are for police officers, firefighters, teachers, correctional officers, nurses, and other state employees – including our dutiful employees at the Minnesota Security Hospital and the faculty at Minnesota State. It’s important to note that ratifying the contracts will not affect the current budget balance because they are already “paid for”, meaning they are already in the budget appropriations we made in the 2019 legislative session.

The capital investment infrastructure bill, better known as the Bonding Bill, also became a contentious issue in the final weeks of session, and both the House and the Senate failed to get one passed. We have to get that done; it is essential to the economic recovery of the state after COVID-19, and is one of the best tools we have to get Minnesotans back to work and strengthen our infrastructure.

The Senate majority didn’t release their final bonding proposal until the day before adjournment, without a single public hearing on the bill. It contained virtually none of the local projects that were in Governor Walz’s bill and the House bill, and it failed to pass.

As legislators, we left a lot on the table that could have really helped our situation. It is up to us to immediately work out differences and find solutions. We are told there may be a special session next month (likely June 12th) and I am looking forward to continuing working towards a legislation that benefits all Minnesotans.

In the meantime, I’m quite glad to be back in North Mankato with my family. I am also appreciative of being able to proudly serve Senate District 19 the last four years. I look forward to continuing our work together this year and hopefully in 2021.

Nick Frentz represents District 19, including St. Peter and Nicollet County, in the Minnesota Senate. Reach him at sen.nick.frentz@senate.mn.

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