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Hopes were high on Feb. 11 when the Minnesota Legislature convened for the 2020 session. COVID-19 was just working its way into the national lexicon, and the Dow Jones industrial average rose more than 174 points to close at 29,276.

New Hampshire voters were going to the polls, and Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was headed for a gritty third-place finish in the Democratic presidential primary.

The state's projected budget surplus was about to hit $1.5 billion. Minnesota was rolling in dough.

Fast-forward to the end of last week. The state had recorded more than 5,730 cases of COVID-19 by Friday, with some 371 fatalities. Moving into the second month of a statewide shutdown, more than 580,000 Minnesotans had sought unemployment insurance benefits.

The Dow shed 622 points to close at 23,723 on Friday. And that was after Wall Street wrapped up a fairly decent month for the coronavirus era.

The Legislature, reduced to working on an on-call basis to pass emergency legislation, has so far approved some $551 million to respond to the crisis, and more aid is expected. Committee hearings take place via videoconference, largely from lawmakers' homes.

Now, with scarcely two weeks left before the scheduled May 18th adjournment, politicians in both parties are bracing for a rare early-May budget forecast quantifying to fiscal toll of the pandemic. The picture Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans draws on Tuesday is not expected to be pretty.

For the first time since the Great Recession, the state budget will be in the red.

With little else left to fight over, state lawmakers can only look back wistfully at the priorities they brought to St. Paul in February. In a nonbudget year, both sides arrived at the State Capitol with highly ideological agendas they hoped to carry into the fall elections, when all 201 House and Senate seats will be up for grabs. Democrats were going to tighten gun laws; Republicans were going to cut taxes, particularly the taxes on Social Security benefits.

Now gun safety has to take a back seat to a more pressing public health crisis and Republicans, bowing to fiscal pressure, have been forced to jettison their Social Security tax repeal.

The singular non-COVID hallmark of this session might turn out to be the deal the two parties reached in April on insulin affordability, breaking an impasse held over from the heady days of 2019.

There's still a bonding package to work out, affording lawmakers on both sides of the aisle a chance to boost the economy and their re-election hopes with local infrastructure projects financed by long-term debt. And they will squabble about whether the state now needs tax breaks or direct aid.

And to add to the partisan spice, they can be expected to spend the rest of the session, and likely the summer, litigating the latest front in the ongoing culture wars: the extent to which Gov. Tim Walz and other governors should sacrifice the economy to save lives.

Kevin Diaz • 612-673-4748