Senate ousts another agency head, Walz retains emergency powers

A man in a suit and tie speaks at a podium.
Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley's confirmation was rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate with a 33-31 vote Friday.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

The Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate voted 33-31 Friday to reject Steve Kelley’s confirmation as state Commerce Commissioner amid their ongoing battle with DFL Gov. Tim Walz over the emergency powers he has used to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Kelley is a former legislator whom Walz appointed to the post early last year. He ran into trouble with Senate Republicans with his recent decision to continue a court challenge of the Enbridge Line 3 replacement oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota.

Last month, the Senate rejected the confirmation of Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink. If the Senate rejects a commissioner appointment, the person is out of a job.

Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he began complaining about Kelley early this year and took his concerns to the governor.

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“It’s important that we do our responsibility as senators,” Gazelka said. “It is one of the responsibilities that we have that is very, very heavy. And that is, the governor appoints commissioners, but it’s our responsibility to either confirm or not confirm. And any time there’s a decision to not confirm, it is not taken likely.”

There were also other complaints.

Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, a retired insurance agent and the chair of the commerce committee, said Kelley didn’t have enough experience in a key area.

“It became very apparent that he had a major lack of experience in the insurance industry, an industry that he was the chief for the regulation part of it,” Dahms said. “That lack of experience really manifests itself in the department.” 

Most Democrats lined up in support of Kelley.

Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said governors should be able to have the people they want.

“I had differences with commissioners. I had differences with how they night have handled the agency and had differences with them ideologically,” Cohen said. “But I did not suggest that I should substitute how I would run the department for how they run the department.”

One Republican, Dave Senjem of Rochester, voted to confirm Kelley. But two northern Minnesota Democrats — Tom Bakk and Dave Tomassoni — sided with the Republican majority to oust him.  

Earlier in the day, Walz defended Kelley and all of his commissioners. In an interview with MPR News, he said they are doing important work in the fight against the pandemic and shouldn't be used as political pawns. 

“They are the people that are actually implementing these proposals to get the testing out there, to keep people safe, to work with the data, to buy the masks,” Walz said, adding that they shouldn’t be publicly embarrassed for political purposes.

House chamber during a special session
During the special session on Friday, lawmakers again debated the emergency powers Gov. Walz has been using for six months to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP file

During the special session that included the Kelley confirmation vote, lawmakers again debated the emergency powers Walz has been using for six months to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted for a fourth time to terminate the emergency Walz first declared in March and to nullify all the orders he has issued.

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said the governor shouldn’t be making decisions about the coronavirus response on his own.

“What people seem to be missing, it’s not just the governor who cares. Sixty-seven senators care a lot, 134 representatives in the House care a lot, and 5.4 million people also care.”

As in three previous special sessions, the Senate Republican effort to end the emergency failed because the DFL House backed the governor. Several DFL lawmakers also noted that all 50 governors declared COVID emergencies and 49 are still in effect. 

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said during the House debate that this is not a time to end the emergency.

“This is a time to speak with one voice, and stop lying to Minnesotans, whoever is still lying and saying that this virus is a hoax. It is not a hoax,” she said. “It is killing people whether they are Democrats or Republicans.”