Minnesota Senate goes home without votes on commissioners

Gazelka speaks to reporters
Republican Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, speaks with reporters in the Senate chamber of the state Capitol on Wednesday.
Steve Karnowski | AP

Updated: 5:22 p.m.

The Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate adjourned its special session Wednesday without taking a planned vote on confirming two of Gov. Tim Walz's commissioners, after Democrats objected to how GOP lawmakers essentially forced out another cabinet member a day earlier.

“That was probably the strangest end I've ever been around,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, told reporters after senators voted 46-18 to go home after a special session that began May 16 to finish a $52 billion state budget. The House adjourned July 1, but the Senate stuck around to consider a half-dozen confirmations.

Gazelka said GOP senators were ready to approve Sarah Strommen as commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources and Dean Compart as president of the Board of Animal Health on Wednesday. He also said they were going to leave hanging the confirmation of Jennifer Ho as commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.

But Democrats were still steaming Wednesday after Laura Bishop resigned under pressure Tuesday as Walz's commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. She quit when it became apparent that the GOP majority was prepared to remove her, although Gazelka continued to insist Wednesday that the outcome of the vote was not certain.

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, of Woodbury, and her fellow Democrats took the unusual step of moving to adjourn in protest, rather than allowing a vote on the sure-thing confirmations of two of their own governor's commissioners in Strommen and Compart. They made their displeasure clear during more than an hour of contentious debate.

“It was a good conversation on the floor, and it was a conversation that needed to be had,” Kent told reporters afterward.

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Kent and other Democrats said Republicans have abused the confirmation process to remove commissioners with whom they have political disagreements. The GOP majority fired two of the Democratic governor's commissioners last summer. amid disputes over their job performance and the administration’s pandemic response.

The vote to end the special session was 46-18 with several Republicans voting yes.

Only five of approximately two dozen state agency commissioners have won Senate confirmation since Walz took office in 2019, including two noncontroversial nominees approved Tuesday. Republicans have left most of them hanging since Walz took office 2 1/2 years ago, without votes, as a way to exercise leverage over them and the governor.

Gazelka won’t say when the rest will be considered.

“I think it’s important that if a commissioner is not doing their job that there is some accountability,” Gazelka said. “I try to treat it just like an employer how an employee would: You give them ample time to improve and warnings and opportunities to get better.”

Minority Leader Kent said that’s abuse of the process.

“This is like a Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of the governor’s appointees for years. So if they do anything, they could be put crosswise with the Senate majority and find themselves called up for confirmation all of the sudden when it’s a forgone conclusion. It’s not OK.”

Sen. John Marty, of Roseville, said during the debate that the Senate’s constitutional prerogative to “advise and consent” was not intended “to be a sort of Sword of Damocles where the sword is hanging over them, and as soon as we don’t like it we can cut off their heads."

Gazelka says Strommen should feel reassurance that her job is safe even without a formal vote. He also said the move against Bishop wasn't unusual but that he hopes it doesn't become commonplace. He said the Senate has removed around 15 commissioners since the 1930s, including one under independent Gov. Jesse Ventura, two under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, one under Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and two under Walz.

The governor's office said it had no fresh comment after Walz denounced Senate Republicans on Tuesday for “choosing to use taxpayer dollars to play partisan games and try to politicize an agency charged with protecting Minnesotans from pollution because they refuse to acknowledge the science of climate change.”

Gazelka said Bishop's efforts to implement the administration's “clean car” plan, which aims to encourage a switch to electric vehicles, were just part of why Republicans were dissatisfied with her. Other major factors, he said, were her decision to join Michigan in a lawsuit to compel enforcement of federal mining pollution standards, as well as new state manure regulations.

Lawmakers are expected to reconvene for another special session in September to discuss a $250 billion bonus pay plan for pandemic frontline workers. Gazelka said he didn't know whether the Senate would also consider the fates of other commissioners when it returns, but that there are no plans for hearings on them at this time.