MN Senate stays in session to review Walz commissioners

Minnesota Capitol building
The special legislative session will last into next week with only the Republican-controlled Senate meeting.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Updated 1:15 p.m. Monday

The Minnesota Senate is back in action Tuesday to consider the job status of several agency leaders — potentially voting on removing commissioners from Gov. Tim Walz’s administration.

Rather than adjourn a special session as the House did last week, GOP Senate leaders extended their stay to conduct performance reviews.

Majority Senate Republicans said the reason they did not end the special session was that they wanted to be sure Walz would sign the budget and tax bills passed during the marathon days leading up to the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

The House adjourned sine die early Thursday morning, meaning the Legislature can’t pass any more bills in the special session.

But the Senate has unilateral power to confirm or reject the governor’s appointments. If rejected, commissioners are immediately out of a job, as was the case with two commissioners last summer.

Several of Walz’s commissioners have served for years without having been confirmed, which is not uncommon. Confirmation is not required.

Now some could face removal. 

Committees will take testimony from six agency or regulatory board officials before potential votes this week by the full Senate.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, denied that the timing is a way for Republicans to strike back at Walz over budget negotiations that may not have gone their way.

“We finished the budget, and through the pandemic we were quite focused on that response,” Benson said. “But now that we’ve finished the budget and those responsibilities, it’s an opportunity for us to take a pause and review those appointments.” 

Benson said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm isn’t in danger of losing her job, despite concerns about the handling of the state’s pandemic response raised frequently by Republicans over the past 15 months. 

Other agency leaders, including Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop, could face a tougher path. Her agency adopted vehicle emission rules Republicans tried unsuccessfully to block and it has spearheaded efforts to restrict chemicals known as PFAS from food packaging.

Democrats reacted to the GOP move with surprise and anger. 

“Is there some vendettas here against the governor’s commissioners that you want to fire them at this point?” Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, asked the few Republicans physically present for Friday’s session.

Benson took issue: “I object to the characterization of Senate oversight as some kind of vendetta.”

A vote to adjourn the special session Friday failed 35-29 along party lines.

Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said there’s no reason to weigh confirmations now.

“I believe the Senate majority has abused this process because I believe they should have taken up these commissioners in the months after they were appointed in January of 2019, and they didn’t,” Kent said. “They held onto them for some reason. They used this political leverage last year with two commissioners and now they’re talking about doing it again.”

Walz defended his appointees and noted the cost of a continuing special legislative session.

“Our commissioners are exceptionally qualified public servants who are charged with protecting public safety, public health, and advancing the common good,” Walz said. “I expect the Senate to fulfill their constitutional duty to confirm any qualified candidate, as they should have done two years ago when our commissioners were first appointed. Because Senate Republicans put this work off for two years and are choosing to conduct their work in overtime, I am calling on them to forgo the thousands of taxpayer dollars they take each day in per diem, and I expect that they will conduct their work expediently, professionally, and free of any political theatre.”

The Republican Majority voted during a special session last summer to remove the Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink and Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley.

Some interest groups reacted on social media.

The group Conservation Minnesota expressed support for Bishop.

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