As second year of emergency begins, GOP again pushes to limit Walz powers

A man stands behind a podium
Gov. Tim Walz answers questions after announcing an easing of some COVID-19 restrictions around gatherings and restaurants on Friday, March 12.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Restaurants are a bit more open for customer seating as of Monday. So are salons, tattoo parlors, gyms and houses of worship.

But as Minnesota entered the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, the Republican majority in the Minnesota Senate moved again to limit the authority of Gov. Tim Walz to take unilateral action. A bill approved on a 38-29 vote would do just that.

For his part, Walz extended the state of peacetime emergency through executive order for at least another month, saying the steps put in place to prevent greater health or financial harm need to be carefully drawn down.

“The unwinding of this is going to take partners,” said Walz, who first declared the emergency a year ago. At that time, there were few objections because lawmakers agreed Minnesota needed to move fast to prepare hospitals, businesses and the public for a serious health threat.

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Daily infections are far higher today than they were back then. But health officials know a lot more about the virus and how to address it. Vaccines are being briskly administered — about two million doses to date.

That’s both a reason for comfort and concern to Walz.

“There’s deep concern now that a year of fatigue lets people just drop everything, and that’s not the way to get out of this,” he told the Executive Council composed of statewide officeholders early Monday.

The early cooperative tone around the coronavirus at the state Capitol has since given way to acrimony over the path Walz has taken. That’s despite the fact that almost every state is under some level of emergency. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said had Walz been forced to involve the Legislature in the decisions the strategy would have looked different.

“I believe the governor has been abusing the emergency powers,” Gazelka said, “especially when you look at compared to what other states are doing.”

To that end, the Senate approved its bill that would give the Legislature more power to object to executive actions lawmakers don’t like. 

The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, said Minnesotans should be troubled by fines and other punishment levied against people and businesses who have defied the emergency orders.

“There’s no legislation,” Osmek said. “There’s no voice of the people. There’s a rule of one.”

His bill would require a governor to win majority votes in both chambers of the Legislature to extend an emergency beyond 30 days. Now, the governor can do that unless both chambers vote to stop him.

“Under current law there’s no effective incentive for the executive branch to work with the legislative branch if the executive’s political allies refuse to hold the executive branch accountable,” Osmek said.

Democrats say the change would hinder response to emergencies. 

The Legislature isn’t prone to quick action, and it would give one chamber veto power, said Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato

“Gridlock in Minnesota is a real risk,” he said, “especially because of divided government.”

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said there’s been too much posturing over the pandemic.

“It’s really not about a concrete plan, actionable steps we want to take,” Kent said. ‘It’s about, get rid of it. End it now. And then we’ll see what happens.”

Walz sent a letter to lawmakers at the beginning of this year’s session that outlined steps he hopes they’ll take to let the emergency end. It included putting a mask mandate into law and removing in an orderly way an eviction moratorium on people behind in rent.

The governor said he’s open to negotiations.

“We are thinking and in communication with the Legislature of how do we start to close that toolbox,” he said.

To strip Walz of his current powers, the Senate would need to get the DFL-led House on board and get Walz to sign it. That’s unlikely.

The current emergency order expires in mid-April. Walz would have the ability to extend it again with the stroke of a pen and the vote of the state's Executive Council, currently made up of all Democrats. 

But there is concern that the power struggle could complicate deliberations over the state budget if they reach later into spring. Gazelka said as much.

“Emergency powers should have been gone a long time ago,” he said. “If they’re still here then, I think it will come into the mix about how to get things done.”