Senate showdown begins over commerce commissioner

A man in a suit and tie speaks at a podium.
Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley speaks during a press conference. Members of two Senate committees — commerce and energy — met online Friday to grill Kelley over his leadership of the agency, including this week’s decision to further challenge the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

Minnesota Senate Republicans have set the stage for another confirmation showdown with DFL Gov. Tim Walz.

Members of two Senate committees — commerce and energy — met online Friday to grill Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley over his leadership of the agency, including this week’s decision to further challenge the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota.

“The department is ultimately responsible, and I’m responsible for the decision,” Kelley said during the confirmation hearing.

Kelley defended the Line 3 decision, saying he was following state law. He said it is regrettable that the issue has pitted environmental activists against people who want to see pipeline construction jobs.

“The statute that we’re looking at is not related to the environment, and it’s not related to jobs. It’s related to whether there’s a need for an energy facility of this kind,” he said.

Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, the chair of the energy committee, accused Kelley of making political decisions because they run counter to the Public Utilities Commission. Osmek said Line 3 is in the public interest, and he is bothered by Kelley’s actions.

“It makes me question whether you are in a position that you should be within the administration,” Osmek.

Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, represents a large part of the replacement pipeline route. He said it would be a big economic boost to the region. Utke urged Kelley to reverse course.

“I would just ask that you do what’s right and pull out of this appeal, and let’s get a project going that’s good for Minnesota, Utke said.

Lawmakers did not vote on Kelley’s confirmation, because they are not in session. Still, Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, the chair of the commerce committee, was willing to speculate.

“I assume if a vote had been taken it would have probably been to move it forward without recommendation,” Dahms said, meaning it would be up to the full Senate to decide whether Kelley keeps his job.

The hearing followed last week’s Senate vote to reject the confirmation of Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink. The rejection results in the immediate ouster of a governor’s appointee. Kelley could be facing a similar fate next month during an expected special session to again extend the governor’s emergency powers to fight COVID-19. Republicans want to end those emergency powers.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, praised Kelley’s job performance. He accused Republicans of going through the motions on a decision that’s already been made.

“I have to say I believe this has been a kangaroo hearing,” Dibble said. “You had a list of people you wanted to ask specific, curated questions, and you jumped right to them. You didn’t give really any of us an opportunity, and you’re cutting the hearing short. So, clearly it sounds like decisions have already been made.”

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