See more of the story

Republicans want legislative oversight over billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds coming to Minnesota through the American Rescue Plan, making it a top priority as they race to strike a deal on a two-year budget with Gov. Tim Walz and Democrats in the House.

They're also questioning a handful of small state contracts awarded in past rounds of federal relief, citing them as a reason more accountability is needed in spending money from the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package Congress passed in March.

"This is not a partisan bill, this is not a Republican or a Democrat issue, this shouldn't be contentious," said Senate Finance Chair Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont. "We are here, 201 legislators, we were voted by our constituents to come here and appropriate money."

A similar proposal failed to gain traction with the DFL-led House last session, but as lawmakers face down a May 17 deadline to adjourn the regular session, spending the federal funds has emerged as a critical bargaining chip for the GOP in broader negotiations to pass a roughly $52 billion budget.

The U.S. Treasury Department announced Monday that Minnesota is in line for nearly $5 billion. That includes $2.8 billion slated for state government — $200 million more than initially anticipated — and another $2.1 billion for local governments.

That's on top of billions Minnesota has already received from previous rounds of pandemic aid through the $2.2 trillion CARES Act and the $900 billion relief bill Congress passed in December.

Republicans requested details on contracts that used a portion of the aid for COVID-19-related media and messaging. They raised concerns Tuesday with some of the state's use of federal dollars in that area, including contracts for up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for communications planning and support from two out-of-state consultants, Brigit Helgen and Kate Brickman, who have local DFL ties. Neither responded to a request for comment Tuesday. Walz's administration also contracted with Brian McClung, former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's deputy chief of staff, for similar work.

"It's disappointing that Governor Walz is using COVID relief money to for wasteful and partisan purposes," Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said in a statement. "Both parties agree that the Governor should not have unilateral control over the billions in federal dollars — we need to make sure Minnesotans and their legislators have a voice and oversight over how this relief money is spent."

Walz defended using the funds for public messaging at a time when so much misinformation around COVID-19 was circulating.

"Having to run an ad to tell people not to drink bleach, yeah, that's frustrating to me, but those are the things that have to happen," Walz said. "Getting good information out, that's what you do. That messaging and public service announcements, that's a very common thing."

Senate Republicans also flagged contracts with SPIRAL Collective totaling $97,970. GOP officials noted that the organization "specializes in providing abortion doulas." The organization said Tuesday that lawmakers were mischaracterizing their mission of supporting people regardless of whether their pregnancy outcome was birth, abortion or miscarriage.

The group's work for the state was focused on a virtual and social media campaign to provide Native American communities with information about COVID-19 and testing, and giving state officials input on those communities' needs. The group also did webinars about wellness, COVID misinformation and giving birth and breastfeeding during the pandemic, and used the dollars for "COVID-19 bundles" that included traditional medicine such as sage and tea. The bundles also contained information and materials such as hand sanitizer and pulse oximeters.

Among the other contracts Republican lawmakers highlighted on a webpage titled "#WastefulWalz COVID Contracts" were those with organizations they said failed to hold up their promises to produce videos that reached tens of thousands of viewers. YouTube pages show the viewer count was minimal for some videos. However, the viewership goals in the contracts were supposed to be based on a variety of platforms, not just YouTube.

"We already reached our goal of reaching the number of people we set out to reach and cherry-picking isolated incidents of YouTube videos that did not reach their target does not serve the people of the state well," said Tom Gitaa, publisher of the African community newspaper Mshale.

He said the Walz administration's contracts were wise choices.

"The vaccine access equity has gotten better through efforts by Mshale and other ethnic media to get the message out. Do they honestly think Minnesota will be top of the nation without the work we did?" Gitaa said.

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected and killed African Americans in Minnesota, noted Freddie Bell, general manager of KMOJ radio station. Republican lawmakers questioned the Walz administration's decision to give $12,500 to the station to air the governor's news conferences, when other outlets are not paid to broadcast them.

"Before COVID-19 hit, we did not have the infrastructure or staffing in place to be able to provide the critical lifesaving information that needed to be shared with the African American community during a pandemic," Bell said. He said the money allowed health officials and Walz's administration "to connect in a more personal manner through a trusted organization within the African American community."

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042


Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044