MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minnesota lawmakers returned to work Tuesday as the 2021 legislative session began. The same old battles will be taking center stage because, once again, the state is operating under a divided legislature.

Unlike years past, there will be no crowds in the gallery due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the DFL-led House plans to meet entirely via Zoom. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Senate will attempt a hybrid approach, with some lawmakers attending at the Capitol and others attending virtually. The Capitol building remains closed to the public.

The swearings-in had all the awkward fits and starts of your average teleconferences, but there was a dust-up in the Minnesota Senate over some not wearing masks on the floor.

Democratic Sen. Matt Klein of Richfield, who is also an ER doctor at Hennepin Healthcare, called out some senators for not wearing masks when not speaking.

“The majority leader has lost a member of his family. I have lost tens of patients. We have lost a beloved colleague. If for no other reason but to honor their memory to try and prevent another loss I would encourage our colleagues to mask up,” Klein said.

The colleague in question was Republican Sen. Jerry Relph of St. Cloud, who died from COVID just over two weeks ago. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka paid tribute to him during Tuesday’s proceedings.

The dispute underscores tension around COVID policy and the governor’s emergency powers, which have allowed him to unilaterally place limits on restaurants, gyms, school and youth sports.

The nature of the full legislative session means that Republican lawmakers will have a bigger voice on pandemic-related issues compared with the series of special sessions over the last several months. Most GOP lawmakers want to rid Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, of his emergency powers.

“We think [the emergency powers] should end now,” Gazelka said in an interview Tuesday. “But where is the place that the governor can agree, and we can agree, that emergency powers should end? Should it be when we get to 1C of the COVID vaccination rollout, which would be people over 65? Where is the point?”

Democratic leaders say their side, including the governor, has been willing to have conversations concerning the use of emergency powers.

“We’ve had several conversations about this from July through now … particularly with Minority Leader [Kurt] Daudt,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman in an interview Tuesday, explaining those conversations were about how the emergency powers might be modified. “The governor continuing to have those emergency powers and having all the tools in the toolbox that he can use for the pandemic, that I feel very comfortable upholding.”

Both sides say there is a modified version of the governor’s emergency powers that they’d support. They just have to agree on what that version looks like.

Another top issue this session is a new two-year budget — with an expected deficit. DFL House leaders will be tasked with deciding whether or not to raise taxes, and on who specifically. Meanwhile, some GOP Senate leaders want to cut government spending. Leaders in both chambers know they can find common ground as they’ve done it before, albeit contentiously.

Minnesota has a $614 million surplus this year, but the following year there is a projected $1.2 billion shortfall.

Esme Murphy