Republicans try to change laws to curtail Walz powers

A man wearing a suit and tie speaks
Gov. Tim Walz speaks from the Governor's Reception room at the state Capitol, to discuss the latest steps in his response to COVID-19 on Nov. 18, 2020, in St. Paul.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP 2020

Republicans have spent months arguing for an end to the peacetime emergency that allows Gov. Tim Walz to issue orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. During a series of special sessions last year, the Republican-controlled Senate voted to end the emergency while the DFL-led House did not.

Now they’re trying to enact new laws to chip away at Walz’s power. 

Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, wants to change the law to require a legislative vote each time the governor orders a 30-day extension of the peacetime emergency. Such a move would restore the Legislature’s coequal power, Osmek said. 

“The executive branch has changed it into a rulemaking authority where one person in the state of Minnesota makes decisions on laws and creates laws that include imprisonment and financial punishment if you don’t follow what that one individual says is the law,” Osmek said. “That is not how this representative republic was put together.”

There is also a Senate bill to allow businesses to fully reopen in spite of any emergency order, if they have a plan for operating safely. Another would allow the Legislature to terminate any emergency order issued by the governor after 30 days.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, is sponsoring legislation to specifically eliminate the governor’s emergency authority to impose restrictions on schools. 

“Those should be local decisions — about when to open, how to open or how to close when it comes to a public health emergency like this,” Nelson said.

For his part, Walz continues to stress that the pandemic remains a danger, and that he is on solid legal ground with his emergency authority. However, Walz said he is open to discussing those powers with lawmakers.

Walz recently told legislative leaders that a wind-down of the peacetime emergency is possible if some protections for Minnesotans are put into law.

“If they want to talk about how these powers should be employed, how they should be used, I’m more than happy to hear that, Walz said. “But this conversation happening at this time in the middle of the pandemic makes me think it is because they don’t like to wear a mask, or they don’t like the decisions that were made.”

Minnesota Legislature
Legislatures are displayed on a monitor as they are sworn-remotely in groups of nine in the nearly-empty House Chamber at the Minnesota State Capitol on Jan. 5 in St. Paul.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP file

Republican leaders have said Walz’s offer to discuss winding down the powers is not helpful, because the governor is putting too many conditions on the offer.

Major changes to the governor's emergency powers seem likely to run into the same roadblock as in last year's special sessions, with the House refusing to go along with the Senate. And if vaccinations and dropping case counts allow Walz more latitude to ease up on restrictions, the political pressure on him could ease up, too. 

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said lawmakers should spend their time looking at specific emergency orders that have raised concerns rather than trying to pull apart the governor's emergency authority. 

A House panel will begin a review this week of the orders issued so far by Walz during the peacetime emergency, in order to "help sort through those things that belong to the governor and those things that properly belong to the Legislature," Hortman said, adding that Walz has used the emergency powers effectively to keep Minnesotans safe.

“We in the House believe that he should have them. We believe that he has used them responsibly,” she said. “So, it’s not going to be a super fruitful exercise to try to radically diminish the amount of power that the governor has.”

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