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Legislative Republicans change their tone, and their tune, on the seriousness of the pandemic

Meanwhile, even as COVID-19 cases surge across Minnesota, the state Senate was talking about … who would be the president of the state Senate.

Capitol staffers preparing the Minnesota Senate chambers on Monday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Minnesota Senate was in and out of session in 90 minutes.
Republicans approached 2020’s sixth special session of the Minnesota Legislature on Thursday with a noticeably different tone on the issue of Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency powers — and the state’s ongoing surge of COVID-19 infections.

Having 75,704 new infections and 594 more deaths since adjourning its last session on October 15 might have had something to do with it. Even if election season is over, looking as though you’re not taking the pandemic seriously is not a good look.

Minnesota has been in a state of emergency since mid-March, which gives the governor extraordinary powers to issue executive orders, including the statewide mask mandate and this week’s 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants. But the GOP-controlled Senate did not move to cancel the state of emergency extended by Gov. Tim Walz earlier this week, as they had done with previous extensions. 

As a result, the Senate was in and out of session in 90 minutes, the House in just under three hours. And Republicans in both chambers took pains to say the pandemic was serious and that residents should wear masks, wash their hands and maintain social distancing.

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While GOP leaders have made such statements in the past, the debates over rescinding Walz’s emergency powers frequently served up charges that he was acting akin to a dictator, while also raising doubts about the seriousness of the illness and whether masks are effective.

With the infection rates booming everywhere, but especially in Greater Minnesota, such language was mostly absent. There was no talk, for example, that the state had succeeded in keeping hospitals and intensive care beds in good supply. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said COVID-19 “is real and people should wear masks and they should be careful and they should social-distance. Do you need me to repeat that?”

When Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Mazeppa Republican, who leads the New Republicans  — a more-conservative-than-the-already-conservative-GOP caucus — moved to rescind the emergency declaration, both DFL and GOP leaders combined to deny it a roll call and kill it on a voice vote.

But DFL leaders were not willing to let the Republicans off the hook for their past statements and actions around the pandemic. “The situation that Minnesota is in did not have to be so dire,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley. “We could have had cooperation at every step of the way to spread the same message to all Minnesotans about social distancing, avoiding large crowds, wearing masks. But we entered into a campaign year in which safety, public health and lives of Minnesotans and Americans became a partisan issue.” 

Rep. Alice Mann
Rep. Alice Mann
Winkler called the response by some Republicans during the summer and fall “anti-mask lunacy.” 

And Rep. Alice Mann, a DFLer from Lakeville and an emergency room doctor, told House members that health care professionals “are not okay, we are struggling to take care of you, we are struggling to take care of your family.” 

Emergency rooms have become overwhelmed and approaching a time of making decisions about which patients to help, “and yet several of you still don’t have the decency to put on a mask, the simplest act of humanity toward someone else and it’s too much to ask,” Mann said.

Mann’s comments came in the midst of a debate over a motion to take up a bill by  GOP Reps. Barbara Haley of Red Wing and Dave Baker of Willmar. House File 19 would empower the House and Senate to take up-or-down votes on individual executive orders 30 days after they are signed. It is the same up-or-down votes that have triggered the six special sessions of the year so far, convened each time Walz has extended the state of emergency, which he first declared in March. 

State Rep. Barbara Haley
State Rep. Barbara Haley
The House GOP portrayed it as a compromise, one that would give some power back to the Legislature without jettisoning all of Walz’s emergency actions.

“We need to work together,” Haley said. “We are trying to provide a little opening in this stalemate over emergency powers.” 

Baker termed the bill, “watered down but effective” compared to summertime GOP bills on emergency powers. But the DFL saw it as another way to limit Walz’s ability to respond to a pandemic that has now led to 201,795 infections and 2,793 deaths in the state.

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Technically, the vote that failed 60-73 was on a motion to suspend House rules and take up the bill immediately, rather than follow the regular procedure of being assigned to a committee. And by the time the vote was taken Thursday, the Senate had adjourned, making it impossible to pass the bill during this special session anyway. 

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Gov. Tim Walz
Yet the vote did expose some oddities that could make the 2021 session more difficult for Walz and his emergency powers than the 2020 sessions have been. The DFL will convene next year with a narrower 70-64 majority, down from 75-59 now. Four of the returning DFLers have voted to rescind emergencies in the past and three voted with the GOP Thursday: Reps. Dave Lislegard of Aurora, Paul Marquart of Dilworth and Julie Sandstede of Hibbing. If the DFL loses four votes on a motion to rescind the emergency powers come January, Walz loses.

“Starting in January, we will have a bipartisan majority in the House with legislators who have voted before to end the governor’s emergency powers,” Haley said in reference to those DFL members.

And yet taking a vote against the governor’s position during the run-up to the election is easier when the member knows it won’t sway the result. Doing so when it could end the governor’s authority to respond to the pandemic — and when the next election is two years away — is a different political calculation. Still, it demonstrates the difference to House Speaker Melissa Hortman between a 16-vote majority and a six-vote majority.

Wait, the Senate did what?

While the House was talking about the pandemic and the surge in infections and deaths, the Senate was talking about … who would be the president of the Senate.

In the type of political exercise that only an insider’s insider could follow — or much care about — the Minnesota state Senate appointed a DFLer, David Tomassoni of Chisolm, as president of the Senate on a 63-4 vote. 

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Why? According to Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka’s statement during an MPR radio interview Thursday morning, “We’re going to take preemptive steps to make sure we don’t have to go through that fiasco again.”

The fiasco the East Gull Lake Republican was apparently referring to was the aftermath of the 2019 appointment of then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to replace Al Franken in the U.S. Senate. DFLers insisted that state law required then-Senate President Michelle Fischbach to vacate her Senate seat to take the job. Had she done so, the state Senate would have fallen into a 33-33 tie and a special election would have been called. 

DFL lawsuits on the issue were never adjudicated on the merits, and Fischbach waited until the 2019 session was over before resigning her Senate seat and being sworn in as lieutenant governor.

State Sen. Jeremy Miller, right, congratulating state Sen. David Tomassoni, left, after he was elected President of the Senate on Thursday.
State Sen. Jeremy Miller, right, congratulating state Sen. David Tomassoni, left, after he was elected President of the Senate on Thursday.
But a series of highly speculative what-ifs might create a similar issue come January. If U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar should get a Biden Administration appointment and need to be replaced in the Senate, and if Walz appoints Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan to the U.S. Senate, and if the president of the Senate then becomes lieutenant governor, then there could be a special election to replace that person. 

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Until Thursday morning, that person had been Jeremy Miller, a Winona Republican from a district that both parties consider winnable. If Miller been forced to vacate his seat, the Senate would be tied 33-33. And if the GOP lost his seat in a special election, the DFL would take over the majority.

To avoid such a scenario, the GOP replaced Miller for the rest of this Legislature — until early January — with someone who has a district that the GOP could possibly win in any special election, and whose absence wouldn’t change the GOP majority.

Why does this version of three dimensional chess make little sense? Because so many things would have to happen for it to be real, starting with the fact that there is still a legal question as to whether a senator could be forced to give up their seat to become lieutenant governor. But there’s also the not incidental issue of Biden not being able to appoint Klobuchar to anything until he is president. (Did Senate Republicans just acknowledge that Joe Biden had, in fact, defeated President Trump?)

For Thursday’s move to have any effect, it would have to be repeated once the new Legislature convenes and new Senate officers are appointed. But Miller Thursday issued a statement congratulating Tomassoni that also said he is “looking forward” to becoming Senate President again next year. 

So why do all this now? 

The timing suggests it is for some reason other than avoiding a Fischbach-type “fiasco” as Gazelka asserts. A GOP leadership that wanted to take a more-moderate tone toward the pandemic spent its day on something that had little to do with it.

Said Winkler of the DFL House: “People are dying and they’re playing parlor games.”