Senate moves again to end Walz emergency powers

Top Senate Republican Paul Gazelka talks to reporters.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Friday Republicans will move to end the COVID-19 emergency next week, even though Gov. Tim Walz said he needs emergency powers until Aug. 1.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

The special legislative session will not end without another clash over the emergency powers Gov. Tim Walz used to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the disagreement now comes down to whether the emergency should be extended by days or weeks.

Walz said Friday he will end the emergency on Aug. 1, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said that's not soon enough. 

Gazelka and Senate Republicans added language to a larger state government budget bill that would end the powers on July 1. 

"This is not something we have to or need to negotiate with the governor," Gazelka said. "This is a legislative prerogative."

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Senate Republicans also included language to limit the fines imposed on businesses for violating COVID-19 restrictions to $1,000 and misdemeanors. The changes throw a wrench into the bill that House and Senate negotiators had already agreed to. 

Walz contends he needs the powers until Aug. 1 to finish overseeing some aspects of the state’s response, including redeploying about 500 state employees.

“At this point in time it’s turning off the lights and sweeping the floor,” Walz said, adding that it amounts to “closing the toolbox.”.

Walz first declared an emergency in March of 2020, and at various times used his unilateral authority to greatly limit public gatherings and mandate the use of facemasks in public. 

Republicans tried to end the emergency almost from the start in a series of special legislative sessions that were triggered by month-by-month extensions of the emergency by Walz. Democrats in the House backed Walz, and efforts to end the emergency have failed there. 

Lawmakers need to get through remaining budgets bills soon to avoid a potential partial government shutdown on July 1.

Most bills are either headed to Walz’s desk or will be by the end of the weekend.

Two could get bottled up: the state government bill where the emergency powers clause was added and a public safety bill where negotiators are stuck on police law changes.

The public safety bill is the one that pays for operations of Minnesota courts and state prisons.

Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said Friday that he’ll outline by Monday how the state’s prisons would operate if no budget is in place as July arrives.

Schnell said most of his agency’s 4,300 employees are in roles directly tied to inmate supervision and medical care. He said there are constitutional duties around security and prisoner treatment.

“I can assure people our correctional facilities are not shutting down,” Schnell said. “People are not walking out the front door and that we understand our constitutional obligation.”