Hobbled by pandemic, Minnesota Legislature winds down with a whimper

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Rep. Greg Davids has been through 29 legislative sessions since he first joined the state House in 1991. This year, he said, was easily the strangest.

"By far," Davids, a Republican from Preston, said last week.

It was the sixth-to-last day of the session, and Davids and Rep. Kurt Daudt, the GOP leader, had just wrapped up a news conference on taxes out in front of the statehouse in St. Paul. Despite the multibillion-dollar spending decisions and high-stakes policy debates that define a legislative session, the vast mall was all but empty of people, the domed Capitol and nearby buildings still under lockdown.

"I had a freshman member come by my office this morning and ask, 'Is this normal?' Because it's like a morgue around here," Davids said. "I said, this is not normal. This place should be hopping and bustling, people flying around all night, into the early morning."

By Saturday, with only a few dozen hours left until the adjournment deadline of Monday at midnight, legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz still had not cut a deal on the two-year state budget that kicks in on July 1, or agreed on new policing laws sought by Democrats. The inevitability of a special session to finish the year's work was a last gasp of disappointment after months of dislocation at the Capitol, which has been entirely closed off by a tall chain-link fence since the unrest following the killing of George Floyd last spring.

"The fun has been missing, but the work remained," said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. "The fun whimsical things like sharing Chinese food in the retiring room or going out for a beer after a floor session — that's been missing. From a personal standpoint it's been harder for people because you need that levity to break up the heavy, serious nature of what we do."

For political junkies, the final days of a legislative session are about as good as it gets in Minnesota. The statehouse hallways buzz with politicians and lobbyists and reporters and assorted insiders as demonstrations echo from the rotunda. Deals are cut in whispered huddles outside of committee rooms, lawmakers play political gotcha games in endless floor debates, conversations linger on speculation and gossip.

"That spontaneity of policy and legislation and legislative interaction, it's a precious thing," said Sen. Dave Senjem, a long-serving Republican from Rochester. "What we do, we do it through relationships and contacts, through in-depth conversations and sometimes, impromptu moments."

This year, instead, the session has mostly played out in Zoom calls. In that, the Legislature is much the same as many white-collar workplaces over the past year. But in a business like politics that's oppositional in nature and often characterized by varying standards of honesty, the near absence of human contact has been a particular challenge.

"What I didn't realize was how much I depend on looking someone in the eye," Davids said. "Looking at their body language. That tells you a lot about where someone is coming from, and you don't get that over Zoom."

In addition to the obvious health benefits of meeting remotely, some lawmakers said there have been advantages to legislating from home and connecting with more constituents virtually. Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL-Eden Prairie, has an infant son and three other kids. Demands at home meant she only visited the Capitol about once every other week, she said, but she was still able to participate fully.

"A lot of people got to meet the baby," Kotyza-Witthuhn said. "He ended up being pretty needy a couple of times when I was presenting a bill in committee. It's going to be amusing for my son when he gets a little older and gets to hear about his first contribution to the Legislature."

Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, said even once the pandemic abates entirely, he'll continue to make himself available to meet with constituents over Zoom. "It's just easier logistically and from a time standpoint for a lot of folks," he said.

Duckworth was elected last November, part of a large crop of first-term lawmakers who have yet to experience a standard legislative session and have largely been denied opportunities for the kind of relationship-building that's key to statehouse success.

"I feel bad for the freshmen, because the relationships are just so important," said Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook.

Several first-year senators said they haven't even met many new colleagues yet.

"The only Republicans I know are a couple women I've met in the bathroom," said Sen. Ann Johnson Stewart, DFL-Wayzata, also first elected last year.

The Senate, with its Republican majority, and the DFL-controlled House have taken notably different approaches to how floor sessions are conducted this year. In the Senate, masks were encouraged but optional, and senators were required to be present in order to participate in debates and introduce amendments, though many spent long stretches waiting in rooms off the Senate floor.

The House, meanwhile, allowed full remote participation, and until recently allowed only 12 members each from the two caucuses to be in person during floor sessions.

"The atmosphere in the chamber was really bizarre," Daudt, the minority leader, said.

The disruptions of the session were no doubt magnified by the political polarization around coronavirus response. In December, Sen. Jerry Relph of St. Cloud died of complications from COVID-19; he was one of several GOP senators to contract it after an in-person gathering with colleagues in November.

Senjem also got the virus at that time. "My case was mild, but my wife and my son and my sister all got it from me," he said. His wife spent several nights in the hospital, Senjem said, but got better.

Relph had lost re-election in November. "Jerry was a great guy and that ended up hitting me pretty hard," said Sen. Aric Putnam, DFL-St. Cloud, who narrowly beat Relph. Putnam said he regretted that the GOP majority didn't take more precautions.

"There were some Republican senators who never wore masks," Putnam said. "That was disappointing to me."

By late last week, with vaccination rates on the rise and Minnesota's statewide mask mandate lifted, things finally started to perk up a bit under the Capitol dome. That produced an unlikely turn of events: As Capitol reporters from Minnesota media outlets started to return to the building in bigger numbers, state lawmakers were actually excited to see them.

"We're almost back to normal," Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, said to a pack of journalists as she entered the Senate chamber.

Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.

Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413

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