Special session begins with debate over COVID-19 emergency, police powers

House chamber during a special session
Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, calls for members to stand in silence and bow their heads for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd on Friday as the Minnesota State Legislature met in a special session.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

A special session of the Minnesota Legislature got underway Friday with lawmakers voting on whether to end the emergency powers that Gov. Tim Walz first invoked in March to deal with COVID-19. 

The Republican-controlled Senate voted to end them. The DFL-led House voted not to, and the lack of consensus means the governor will retain his ability to act unilaterally. 

Senate Republicans also outlined the police accountability measures that they are willing to support in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, but their list is far shorter than the one Walz endorsed on Thursday.  

The emergency powers, and Walz’s desire to extend them another 30 days, were the reason lawmakers returned to St. Paul for the special session.

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Republicans have grown tired of the DFL governor’s ability to make unilateral decisions. They argued that it's time to end the peacetime emergency and return the Legislature to an equal footing.

Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said the emergency has gone on too long.

“We are going on now one third of this year being a government of one, one person in charge in the governor’s office, by a misuse of a statute that wasn’t intended to be an ongoing new form of government under the guise of an emergency,” Westrom said.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said he wants to support the governor, whom he believes is being responsible about the emergency.

“I think it’s far too important, the risks are too great and we absolutely have to be responding to what Minnesotans need to stay safe, and also respond to the responsible use of authority to start opening up the economy and letting people go about their business,” Dibble said.

Earlier in the day, Senate Republicans outlined a handful of proposals aimed at preventing police brutality. Their list, which is considerably shorter than what House Democrats have in mind, includes a ban on chokeholds, changes in deadly force standards and an expansion of deescalation training.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said it’s a good list.

“We, in a short session, are going to take the things that we believe we can get done right now. That’s the short term, and then continue to work toward the long term,” said Gazelka. We really want to show a good faith effort that there are things we should do.”  

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, the chair of the judiciary committee, said enacting the proposals would help keep people safe.

“I will never be quoted saying we’re writing bills to prevent something from ever happening again. That would be a lie. We’re trying to do our best to create professional standards with people that are flawed, just like you and I.”

Before the special session even began, House and Senate leaders were disagreeing about how long it should last. Gazelka said his intention is to be done next Friday.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent
Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka talks with DFL Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent on the Senate Floor before the start of a session in St. Paul on Friday.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

“We plan on having a special session that will be one week long. Once we get to next Friday I can tell you that will be when we’re done.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said it is wrong to set an arbitrary deadline. She wants to take the time needed to address several important issues.

“We should not be in any hurry to leave the State Capitol before our work is done,” Hortman said. “The people of Minnesota have demanded we take action.”