ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Legislature on Wednesday, Aug. 12, convened for its third special session this summer to again weigh whether to end a peacetime emergency in place to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Tim Walz in March issued the emergency to expand the state's "toolbox" in responding to the illness. And he has since ramped up Minnesota's testing capacity, created surge access to intensive care beds and ventilators, set a moratorium on evictions, funded food shelves and let the state build up protective equipment.
Much to the frustration of Republican lawmakers and business owners, however, the emergency has also allowed the governor to temporarily close schools, restaurants and businesses in an effort to slow the disease's spread.
Republicans in two prior special sessions have tried to end the emergency, with no success, and they argued lawmakers have a closer ear to the ground in their districts and should inform the state's pandemic response. The Senate on a 36-31 vote advanced the resolution Wednesday. An effort to to take it up in the DFL-led House failed.
"We know a lot more about this now, it's still a serious virus but the emergency side is over," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said. "If things change in the late fall the governor could call back the emergency powers, but right now, members, I think it's in the people's best interest in Minnesota that we remove the emergency powers and the legislative branch work equally with the governor."
Both chambers of the Legislature must agree to end a proposed 30-day extension of the peacetime emergency. And the DFL-led House of Representatives on a 75-61 vote voted not to take up the proposal, allowing another month-long extension of the governor's expanded executive powers.
“The emergency continues,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, told reporters Wednesday morning, noting the governor can act more nimbly than the divided Legislature. “The pandemic is not done in our country yet, we need to get control of the virus.”
The move comes as the Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday reported another 470 had tested positive for COVID-19 and 12 more Minnesotans died from the illness. Minnesota and 48 other states had similar emergencies in place that allowed them to draw down federal disaster funds to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and deploy the National Guard.
Walz on Wednesday told reporters that the state still needed flexibility provided through the peacetime emergency and said he'd not heard constructive feedback from GOP lawmakers on his pandemic response efforts.
"We are still in the midst of this," Walz said. "Every time I ask, 'What would you do differently?' There’s really not a response."
Lawmakers in both chambers also advanced a proposal to allocate $30 million in federal CARES Act funds to support day services for Minnesotans with disabilities, sending the measure to Walz for his signature.
Senate ousts labor commissioner
Before the Senate closed out the special session, the body on a 34-32 party-line vote rejected the confirmation of Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink. GOP lawmakers said Leppink had not demonstrated she could appropriately do the job and should be replaced.
“I do this with great seriousness, this isn’t something I take lightly,” Gazelka said, noting he'd sought to take up the confirmation earlier in the year but the pandemic delayed the discussion. “She is in the wrong role, a key role.”
Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, and other GOP lawmakers pointed to an issue with Brainerd-based Paul Bunyan Land amusement park in which owners weren’t able to use waivers previously applicable there to bring on 16- and 17-year-olds to operate rides. And Ruud said the Legislature had to act to help that business and others perform certain work services in compliance with state law.
Other members, too, cited instances of the department requiring sprinklers for wedding barns or other restrictions that they found unfair to business owners.
“We really need a commissioner that is responsive and supportive and open to helping our businesses,” Ruud said.
But Democrats in the Senate raised red flags in the debate, saying they weren't alerted that the body would take up the confirmation Wednesday and felt it was inappropriate to do so without lawmakers and others involved in ongoing discussions to weigh in. And they likened it to an ambush.
“This has massive ramifications for our workforce, for labor and for industry,” Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury said, noting the move to abruptly take up the confirmation was "outrageous. “This is a really disappointing day, it sets a terrible precedent for this body."
Democrats in the chamber and Walz's office defended Leppink, noting various organizations that have voiced support for her work. And on Wednesday, Walz said the move was an act of "petty politics" with significant consequences.
"I'm pained tonight. We did not have any indication that this was coming and I'm concerned," Walz said. "I'm concerned that in the middle of a pandemic we need stability and we built a team that is delivering, that is getting folks back to work, keeping Minnesotans safe and we've been undermined."
Walz said the department's deputy commissioner would take the helm for now and the administration would decide how to proceed in coming days.