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Despotic or spot on? The debate over the governor’s emergency powers shows just how differently the parties see the pandemic in Minnesota

Some Minnesota Senate Republicans expressed doubts about the seriousness of the dangers posed by COVID-19, portraying Walz’s use of his emergency powers as dictatorial.

The only official action was a Senate debate on a resolution to remove Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency declaration.
The only official action was a Senate debate on a resolution to remove Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency declaration.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

There was only one official reason why the Minnesota Legislature returned to special session Monday: to pass judgment on Gov. Walz’s fourth 30-day extension of the declaration of peacetime emergency to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. And that’s all the Minnesota Legislature did. 

While not giving up on reaching an agreement on a handful of other issues, House and Senate leaders said they weren’t quite there on a deal yet. Both House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka suggested the two sides keep working and return to St. Paul on July 20.

So the only official action was a Senate debate on a resolution to remove Walz’s emergency declaration. In the end, the vote was 35-31, with just one DFLer, Sen. Kent Eken of Twin Valley, voting with Republicans to pass the resolution. When and if the DFL-controlled House takes up the proposal to overturn the emergency declaration, it will vote it down, however, giving Walz a victory by a score of 1-1. That’s what happened on June 13, the last time the Legislature had to consider the issue. And it is likely what will happen come August 13, should Walz again extend the emergency again. 

Yet even if Monday’s result was essentially predetermined by the politics of the Legislature — with the Senate controlled by Republicans who generally oppose the extension and the House by DFLers who generally support it — the Senate debate offered a stark reminder of vast differences between the parties about the pandemic and the government’s response to it.

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GOP: Walz’s use of powers ‘dictatorial’

Republican leaders in the Senate have mostly based their opposition to the emergency declaration around constitutional and economic issues. Gazelka said that Minnesota’s emergency powers law was meant for relatively brief emergencies when a governor needs to act quickly and decisively, such as due to a flood or other natural disasters. And while he supported Walz’s use of those powers in March, the East Gull Lake Republican says the state’s improving case numbers show that need has subsided. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
“This has been the longest exercise of emergency powers ever in the state of Minnesota,” Gazelka said. “Yes, there is a pandemic but, no, there is no longer an emergency.” 

While closing schools and large swaths of the economy was understandable when the virus was still a mystery and when hospitals had to gear up for an expected flood of patients, Gazelka said, the growth rates have been slowed, and hospitals now have increased capacity of beds and supplies.

Gazelka also noted that most of the 1,504 people who have died of COVID-19 in Minnesota are elderly or had pre-existing health conditions and that none have been under the age of 20. 

He also highlighted two issues that have taken on prominence, here and nationally: mask mandates and school reopenings. “Giving the governor emergency powers means that he decides whether schools will be open this fall or not — not your local school district, not your school administrators, but the governor,” he said. “But we know we need kids back in the classrooms.”

Later, he added: “We are willing to shut down schools when not one person under 20 has died.”

State Sen. Michelle Benson
State Sen. Michelle Benson
Deputy majority leader Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, also based much of her opposition to the emergency powers extension on state constitutional grounds, saying that as a co-equal branch of government, the Legislature should have a role in deciding how to respond to the pandemic. 

What triggered the session was not the unfinished work of the regular and first special sessions, after all, but the legal requirement that lawmakers have the opportunity to pass judgment on any extensions of emergency powers, she said. “Covid is still very serious,” Benson said. “But emergency powers give the governor’s decisions the force of law without the benefit of public debate, without the benefit of us as Legislators … having a say.”

But while Gazelka and Benson said they consider the pandemic to be a significant issue, other Senate Republicans expressed doubts about the seriousness of the dangers posed by COVID-19 — and the efficacy of the state’s response. 

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Some senators, for instance, portrayed Walz’s use of powers as dictatorial. “It’s time to restore Minnesota to the Minnesotans and let us be freemen and freewomen,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.

Freedom was a common theme. Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Milaca, said he objects to his position being described as a desire to get back to the way things were before the virus. “I can’t recall one person in my district asking me, ‘Senator, help us get back to normal,’” Mathews said. “I do hear many people standing up and asking me, ‘Senator, let’s get back to freedom.’” 

State Sen. Scott Jensen
State Sen. Scott Jensen
Mathews also said 1,504 deaths is “not very many at all,” considering the dire predictions this spring of 40,000-75,000 deaths, depending on whether the state issued shutdown orders or not. “All of the predictions that have been coming along the way are grossly inaccurate. Many of the people I hear from in my district are not happy about hearing this sky-is-falling-type schtick anymore.” 

Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, described “an emergence of dictatorial powers coming from the governor’s office” and said it was “time to stop this unintended social experiment that’s taking place with our children.

“What do we think can happen when you take a group to three-to-10 year olds and you surround them with adults who wear masks, you have the TV playing with fear mongering, with all the media people, you separate families and then you tell kids you’re not going to school, you’re not going to see your playmates?” he asked.

Jensen, a medical doctor, compared COVID-19 to the flu and said the recent infections of 20 to 50 years old will help move the country toward herd immunity.

And Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, took issue with the idea that COVID-19 was historic and unprecedented, saying outbreaks of Ebola and SARS were far more serious. “What is historic and unprecedented is the governor’s response to this,” Kiffmeyer said, adding that her constituents “feel  like they are being treated as children in a paternalistic society.”

‘When they hear about ‘One Minnesota,’ what they really hear is ‘One Minneapolis for all of Minnesota,’” Kiffmeyer said, while questioning the effectiveness of masks and the usefulness of any future vaccine.

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Senate DFLers: Denial is not a strategy

For their part, DFLers have pointed out that governors in 49 of 50 states, both Republican and Democratic, have retained emergency powers. And that Minnesota’s relatively good COVID-19 numbers are evidence of the effectiveness of the response — not a rationale for ending the emergency, which would take away every executive order Walz has signed under his emergency powers, orders that now include: a suspension of bidding rules to allow the state to purchase supplies quickly; an eviction moratorium; the testing consortium with the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic; feeding programs for children and seniors; paid leave for those who become sick (or those who care for the sick); and child care for critical workers and other emergency responders.

On Monday, DFLers in the Senate knew that the resolution would pass, but they also knew it would be blocked by the House. Even so, they did try to rebut many if not all of the assertions made by Senate Republicans. “This resolution is akin to sticking your head in the sand,” said Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, who pointed to states in the South and West that have seen huge increases in infections as a result of reopening their economies.

Sen. Melisa Lopez Franzen
Republicans attack Walz’s emergency powers “as if he’s sitting in his mansion by himself twiddling his thumbs wondering what he’s going to do today,” Isaacson continued. “‘Oh, maybe I’ll close the schools, maybe everyone should wear masks.’ The reality is far different. There are really smart people with kids and families, really smart people in and out of our government who are advising the governor all the time on this issue.”

Sen. Melisa Lopez Franzen, DFL-Edina, voted in favor of the Republican resolution on June 13 but voted against on Monday. Her reason: because the Senate has failed to step up and play a stronger role in pandemic response decision-making. That would mean holding hearings on reopening schools and businesses instead of probing the toppling of the Christopher Columbus statue or the state’s response to looting and arson following the homicide of George Floyd, issues that have consumed hours of a joint Senate committee over the last two weeks.

“We do not have this pandemic under control,” she said. “I remember years ago we said hope is not a strategy. Well, neither is denial.” And she said he refused to let her five-year-old son be a political pawn in the partisan debate over schools.

“Let’s stop politicizing and weaponizing a pandemic,” she said.

Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, said emergency powers are meant to give the government the authority to act quickly, citing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who reversed his reopening of bars and issue a mask mandate in 72 hours in the midst of a surge of cases that required the Houston Chronicle to publish a special 42-page section of obituaries.

“We need to be nimble. We need the executive to be ready to act,” Frenz said. “No disrespect to our Legislature, but it’s not the speediest device ever created.”