The economic relief proposal outlined by Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday received a mix of praise, and criticism, from lakes-area legislators Wednesday, Nov. 25.
Walz's proposal focuses on keeping small businesses afloat, supporting workers who are struggling and helping Minnesotans who are dealing with food insecurity, according to the governor's press release. While no price tag for the relief package was mentioned, legislators said they believe the total will be in the "hundreds of millions."
"I am committed to turning over every stone to find funding that will help make sure our businesses stay afloat, our workers are supported, and our families can put food on the table," said Walz, in the press release. "Our small businesses and the Minnesotans whose livelihoods depend on them are bearing a huge weight for the good of their entire community. As cases skyrocket and hospital capacity is pushed to the brink, our small businesses should not have to bear the financial consequences alone. We’re in this together."
Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, said he'd have to see what is actually in the governor's bill once it's finalized before deciding on whether to endorse the proposal and needs a lot more information about antibodies, and the spread of COVID-19, before adding more debt to the state's bottom line.
One of the areas where Green and Walz agree is the need for regulatory relief. Walz's proposal outlines waiving state and regulatory fees for bars, restaurants, event center and others, but is short on the specifics of which regulation fees he is referring.
"We've got a lot of people that are out there hurting, and no matter how you look at it, whether it's because they can't get help, or it's because they are closing their businesses, we're going to probably have a long road to get everybody back up and running" said Green. "So, regulatory reform, in my opinion, should definitely be a part of anything that we do because we can't just continue to pour money in because we don't know how much money we're going to have to pour in."
He also admits that safety regulations cannot be neglected, but any help legislators can offer businesses without spending additional taxpayer money would be a benefit.
Regulatory relief for businesses is a concerned shared by Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley.
"I would agree with Rep. Green on the regulatory side of things as well," said Eken. "Regulatory relief, I think, is badly needed. We do have tendency in our state to have gone overboard in the area of regulation...but especially now during the pandemic, when businesses are already under such financial stress, this may be a time when we can find some regulatory relief because the need is so great for it."
Another facet of the governor's proposal is providing help to struggling workers, which includes extending unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks. However, Green points out, the extension may incentivize some workers to stop looking for work at a time when essential businesses are hard pressed to find more essential workers to employ.
"I've been talking to businesses and the ones that are still open are still having trouble finding help," said Green.
Eken said he "understands the concerns" about employers not being able to find applicants, but also stressed the need to continue looking out for those families who are struggling to make ends meet through no fault of their own. He also said it's important to realize that if a laid-off employee refuses to return to work when offered, they would no longer be eligible for unemployment benefits, a common misconception he sees people make about the state's unemployment program.
"I do think that we do need to make sure that people who are experiencing unemployment, and I know a number of them who are that want to work, that they have access to those benefits," said Eken. "Because it is having a devastating impact on their ability to provide for their families, and to make house payments, and do things of that nature."
Another economic relief idea floated by Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, according to MinnPost, is a three-month sales tax holiday for businesses, but, Eken and Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, both said that doesn't make much sense if the businesses are closed and not collecting sales tax.
"We've got to see how it works where it treats everybody fairly," said Utke. "For someone that's closed, that isn't going to do them much good because they are closed because the governor is mandating it."
Utke also said the state can't duplicate the more than $2 billion in CARES Act funding that the state received from the federal government in the spring, but still believes it has to be "a large sum" in order to cover the needs of the whole state.
"By the time you blanket the whole state, for those that are suffering, I would guess $400 million to $500 million goes by real fast," Utke said.
Walz's proposal also pushes for establishing a one-time state grant for restaurants to provide food to health care workers, homeless shelters and long-term care facilities. Walz also wants to provide a tax-credit for businesses who donate food that would otherwise spoil or thrown away.
Green also said not to expect any relief action before the state's November budget forecast is released next week because the state needs to know the current financial climate before using emergency budgetary funds.
"I want those numbers first, and I hate to give a politician's answer, but it's easy to say, 'well, let's just spend the money,' because that's what everyone wants to hear," said Green. "But, unless we have all of the information, it's kind of tough to do that."