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Emergency powers, elections and violent rhetoric: Why it may be hard to get anything done at Minnesota Legislature this year

A heated media forum Monday with the governor and the four legislative leaders featured a back and forth about the invasion of the U.S. Capitol and whether lawmakers’ rhetoric contributed to it. But it was sometimes hard to distinguish between anger over the attack and frustration over the state’s response to COVID-19.

State senators entering the Minnesota Senate chambers on the first day of the 2021 legislative session.
State senators entering the Minnesota Senate chambers on the first day of the 2021 legislative session.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

After a fall and summer of increasing acrimony and heightened rhetoric — including seven attempts to rescind Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency powers — the 2021 Minnesota Legislature convened with a somewhat softer tone early last week. Might it lead to a compromise between the governor, his DFL allies and the GOP?

Probably not, especially after a superheated media forum Monday featuring the governor and the four legislative leaders. Most of the back and forth was about the invasion of the U.S. Capitol and whether GOP lawmakers took part in the rhetoric that contributed to it.

But it was sometimes hard to distinguish between anger over that attack and the months-long debate over the state response to COVID-19.

“How do we find common ground when we have people who will not say the election was fair?” Walz said Monday. “How do we find common ground when basic medical facts are disregarded? How do we find common ground when the leadership continues to perpetuate these falsehoods?”

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At the same forum, GOP leaders said a letter Walz sent last week over his emergency powers “wasn’t helpful” and was “tone-deaf.”

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Gov. Tim Walz
“The jabbing and then the ‘Let’s work together’ doesn’t work very well,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.

And House Speaker Melissa Hortman said it was difficult to have a conversation about COVID response and power-sharing with Walz when the House and Senate cannot even agree whether masks are useful and necessary. The House requires mask-wearing; the Senate “strongly recommends” it.

“When you see such a difference on something so basic and so fundamental about protecting human beings’ lives, it starts to explain to you the difficulty we’ll have in governing the state together with regard to COVID-19,” Hortman said.

Fundamental differences

Lawmakers and governors usually take on a first-day-of-school optimism when new sessions begin. So it was last week when legislative leaders expressed some goodwill about working together. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said he was “excited” to work with the governor in the response to the pandemic. Gazelka said he was focused on the rollout of vaccines and the time when emergency powers would no longer be needed.

Hortman too predicted less conflict, partly because the convening of the session means lawmakers will have a stronger voice in spending federal pandemic relief money. She also said her caucus would be willing to make compromises on issues such as the state’s eviction ban and help for landlords.

For his part, Walz sent a letter to lawmakers with a conciliatory tone, at least on the surface. “As the legislative session begins this week, I recognize our shared interest in finding a pathway to work collaboratively to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and to ensure an orderly end of the peacetime emergency when it is no longer needed,” Walz wrote.

But the talk of excitement and shared interests doesn’t erase some fundamental differences. The DFL governor continues to say he needs authority to restrict activities as the infection numbers dictate. Legislative Republicans continue to disagree.

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While pledging to work with lawmakers on the pandemic, Walz’s letter also listed a series of bills he would need to pass the Legislature before he would lift the state of emergency, including legislation protecting workers who raise concerns about unsafe workplaces; broadening unemployment insurance eligibility; continuing evictions bans; instituting protections against price gouging; banishing garnishment of money received in relief payments; and instituting a statewide mask mandate.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
“This will be needed to facilitate the wind-down of the peacetime emergency and related emergency executive orders at a time when the pandemic presents a less significant and rapidly evolving challenge to Minnesota,” the governor wrote.

Daudt on Monday called the letter “tone-deaf.”

“The Legislature needs to decide for itself,” he said. “We don’t need to be offered an ultimatum from the governor as to what those things should or shouldn’t be.”

In an op-ed column in the Pioneer-Press, Gazelka presented his own plan for reopening the state. “Three key data points — transmission rates, high-risk populations and vaccination phases — should be used as the foundation for a plan to reopen. These are easily measured, scientifically supported, and common-sense data points that aim for ‘focused protection’ as a less destructive way to manage COVID than the universal restrictions we currently have.”

The East Gull Lake Republican called for schools to reopen and for rapid tests for teachers. He also wants teachers to be in line for vaccination “early in phase two.” He said businesses, including restaurants, should open at full capacity once the vaccination schedule reaches frontline essential workers and all people 75 and older.

On Monday Gazelka said Walz knew what was in the op-ed before he sent his letter and that he asked him to consider vaccination phases as a measure for when emergency powers would end. “Putting out a list of things he won’t give up is unfortunate,” he said. “Emergency powers on and on and on have really driven a wedge between many people in Minnesota.”

Can Democrats hold off Republican efforts to rescind Walz’s authority?

Walz’s emergency powers depend on one primary factor, whether House DFLers can continue to block resolutions to rescind that authority.

Under current law, Walz can declare a peacetime emergency and keep it in place for 30 days. He can then renew the state of emergency for 30 days after that. Each time he does so, though, the Legislature can rescind those powers with a simple majority of the House and Senate. Seven times the GOP Senate has voted to rescind the powers. In each case, however,  the DFL-controlled House thwarted that move, usually by a parliamentary procedure vote.

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Republican legislative leaders think Hortman’s weakened majority won’t hold this session, pointing to members of her caucus who voted with Republicans over rescinding the powers at one time or another during the summer and fall.

While Hortman said she thinks her caucus will hold, she was pushing a rule change that would require a two-thirds majority to pull bills and resolutions from committees. If that rule was adopted, it would be harder — if not impossible — for Republicans to bring a resolution to rescind the emergency declaration to the House floor.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Daudt called that move an admission by Hortman that she lacks confidence in keeping a majority on emergency declarations, something she denies. This week, however, House DFL leadership dropped the proposal and it won’t appear in permanent rules expected to be adopted Thursday. Last week, Hortman appeared to say that the issue of emergency powers would reach the floor for an up or down vote regardless of the proposed rule. “If we get to that point on the House floor — and we will — it will be with regard to legislation that has been carefully considered in several committees and that has Democratic and Republican input and then we will send that to the Senate,” Hortman said.

“Everyone is willing to have a conversation, including the governor, and we’ve had several … about this,” she said.  In the first test of her hold on the caucus, the DFL knocked back a Daudt motion to pull a resolution to the floor with 69 of her 70 members voting no. The 70th, Rep. Peter Fischer of Maplewood did not cast a vote.

But unlike votes to rescind any peacetime declaration, changes to the emergency powers act itself require Walz’s signature.

Hortman said last week she thinks some of the friction between Walz and GOP lawmakers will be alleviated now that the House and Senate is in regular session. Being in the capitol — or virtually, via Zoom — gives lawmakers a stronger voice. And the use of federal funds — something done by the governor when the Legislature is not in session — will be handled differently now that lawmakers are back. “I think that will go a long way to resolve some of the tension,” the Brooklyn Park DFLer said.

With the Legislature involved in decisions about the latest round of federal relief, for example, it can weigh in on how money is spent, she said, citing the distribution of money to states for pandemic-related rental and mortgage assistance.

Walz was able to decide how to spend all of the $1.87 billion in direct aid to Minnesota under the CARES Act. That’s because under existing law, when lawmakers are not in session, governors must only advise a group of lawmakers — known as the Legislative Advisory Council — before spending money the state gets. The purpose appears to be to give governors the ability to spend disaster relief and other emergency money quickly. But never has the state received such a massive amount of money as it did in the CARES Act.

The $900 billion COVID relief bill signed last month doesn’t have an equivalent distribution directly to states, but does have specific grants for schools, unemployment insurance, transportation, rental assistance, vaccinations and other responses. Much of that, however, comes with directions from Congress, with the state acting more as a pass through entity than a deciding body.

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And if Congress were to send additional money directly to the state again under the Biden administration, the current law on those funds is less clear cut than it appears, in that it would not simply flow through the regular state budget.

“It’s a pretty convoluted and complicated statute,” said Britta Reitan, the budget director in the state Office of Management and Budget.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt
If federal money arrived before the third budgetary deadline set by the House and Senate while the Legislature was in session, the governor would submit it as part of his budget. The Legislature can review and any member of the LAC can put dollars on hold, blocking spending until either the hold is withdrawn, a bill is passed directing the money differently — or the regular session adjourns.

That’s why Senate Finance Committee Chair Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, wants to clarify that all federal funds coming to the state must be appropriated by the regular budget process. Under her bill, Senate File 8, if money comes to the state from the federal government anytime before June 30 and it’s related to the pandemic, it must go through the Legislature to be spent.

But all of that was also before Monday, when whatever goodwill that existed seemed to disappear. Before he left the teleconference, Walz tied Monday’s fight over the violence in Washington, the violent rhetoric at a St. Paul rally and the emergency powers dispute to the biggest issue of all: whether the atmosphere at the state Capitol is too toxic for any compromises to get done at all this session.

“How do we talk about reaching a compromise on a budget,” he asked, “when we can’t agree that our elections are fair?”

(Update: This article was changed after it was first posted to reflect that a proposed rule to require a two-thirds majority for pulling bills and resolutions from committee was dropped by the House DFL leadership and won’t appear in rules when they are debated Thursday.)