The Bemidji Pioneer

By Sarah Mearhoff

Just over a year into life-altering coronavirus pandemic, Minnesota Democrats are lauding the recently passed American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus response that lawmakers say signals hope.

Standing in the Mall of America’s newly erected vaccination site on Monday, March 15, Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan praised the legislation along with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, as well as U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Betty McCollum, all Democrats. The plan includes a $350 billion allocation for state and local governments, $7.5 billion of which is expected for Minnesota, to go toward testing, vaccinations and more.

“This is a momentous week because we can finally say to Americans that help is on the way,” Klobuchar told reporters. Gesturing at the vaccine site behind her, she added, “You can see right here why we passed this bill.”

President Joe Biden, who signed the package into law Thursday, March 11, one day after receiving it, has set a deadline for all American adults to be eligible for the vaccine by May 1. So far, nearly 1.3 million Minnesotans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Included in the package is a provision, championed by Smith, ensuring that no Americans see out-of-pocket costs for their COVID-19 vaccine, no matter their health insurance status.

With the package’s funding for vaccine distribution, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm at Monday’s news conference said that “at the heart of this bill is going on offense against this disease” with widespread vaccine deployment. That’s only possible with money and resources, she said.

“The vaccine does no good in the vial. It’s got to get delivered to people,” she said. “This is one of the most complex operations in public health in our history and we can’t do it without the support, the people and the infrastructure to get the vaccines administered. This is just going to accelerate our recovery from this pandemic so quickly.”

Klobuchar said the American Rescue Plan is also meant to stimulate the sputtering national economy because “we don’t want to be in such a deep hole that you can’t crawl out of it.” The package includes $1,400 direct payments to qualified individuals, expanded child tax credits, grant programs for restaurants and more.

Since March 16, 2020, nearly 1.3 million Minnesotans have filed for unemployment insurance, nearly 87,000 of whom are food and beverage servers and 43,000 are cooks and food preps. According to Klobuchar, one in six restaurants in the country have closed permanently due to coronavirus public health restrictions and a lagging economy.

Craig, whose politically purple 2nd Congressional District stretches south from the Twin Cities metro, said, “If we ask you to shut your business down, the government has a responsibility to step forward and help you.”

In addition to the expanded child tax credit, Smith emphasized the package’s boosted funding for child care, which will go toward day care providers and early learning programs. She said there has been an 11% drop in workforce participation for women in Minnesota over the past year, part of which she attributed to a lack of in-person school and child care options during the pandemic.

“This is the basic infrastructure of our economy and people are not going to be able to get back to work — in particular, moms are not going to be able to get back to work — unless we have a child care system that is there for them,” Smith said. “Those are workers that we cannot afford to lose in our economy and our families cannot afford to lose that income.”

Between accessible child care, child tax credits, extended unemployment benefits and expanded SNAP benefits, Flanagan said the American Rescue Plan has the potential to cut child poverty in half nationwide.

The bill package is not, however, popular across the aisle. All four of Minnesota’s Republican U.S. representatives — Jim Hagedorn, Tom Emmer, Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber — voted against the bill, largely citing its $1.9 trillion price tag and what they considered a partisan wish list.

In a March 10 news release, Emmer accused Biden of siding with congressional Democrats "in an entirely partisan fashion to advance a political agenda," despite bipartisan compromise on previous COVID legislation.

“Only 9% of the funding in today’s bill goes towards fighting the virus,” he continued. “Instead, it prioritizes funding for government bailouts ahead of returning our students to the classroom and reopening our economy. With more than $1 trillion in previous COVID relief still left unspent, today’s vote cuts a $2 trillion check that our children and grandchildren will be forced to cash.”

Democrats did fail to achieve one of their policy priorities in the plan of raising the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which Klobuchar called “ridiculous” and said needs to be raised. Though they couldn’t get it through this time, she said it’s still on the table for the future. Looking ahead, she said she also wants to see major infrastructure investments, including in broadband.

# # #