As the number of people getting vaccinated for COVID-19 in Minnesota continues to rise and deaths from the disease have fallen, Gov. Tim Walz has relaxed many of his restrictions on bars, restaurants, sporting events and other facets of public life.
The lighter touch hasn’t ended Republican criticism of the governor’s continued use of emergency powers, which he has wielded since March of 2020 to implement pandemic-related regulations. It has, however, signaled a new phase of the pandemic in the state, in which Walz’s role might eventually be reduced — by himself or by the Legislature.
On Monday, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, acknowledged the changing dynamic, telling reporters she was open to winding down many of Walz’s powers as long as the governor keeps enough authority she says he needs to run vaccination and testing sites.
But that raises questions: How serious are Democrats about making changes before the legislative session ends in May, and what exactly might those changes be?
One DFLer from northern Minnesota who previously introduced bills to limit Walz’s power could offer a hint. State Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, says she’s looking at altering the peacetime emergency statutes, but likely for the next pandemic.
“How do we let the governor be the governor and have the authority of that office and yet bring the Legislature in, in a meaningful way, to balance?” Sandstede said.
DFL resists changing Walz’s powers
Since last summer, Republicans who control the state Senate have voted repeatedly to rescind or limit Walz’s power, criticizing as too broad his mask mandate and other regulations on businesses and social gatherings. They have also wanted the governor to work directly with lawmakers to craft a pandemic response.
Just this week, the Senate GOP released its “omnibus” bills, which are packages of legislation sorted by topic area that often signal priorities for lawmakers. One includes a measure that would allow any business to operate with no capacity limitations as long as it has a COVID-19 safety plan and makes a “good faith effort to maintain a safe and healthful workplace and business operation.”
Another proposal would require any executive order issued under peacetime emergency powers closing or partially closing a business to be approved by the House and Senate.
Yet under current law, legislators in the House and Senate need to approve any changes to the governor’s emergency authority. So far, the DFL-controlled House has resisted doing so.
Democrats have portrayed the Republican push to restrict Walz’s power as a political attack on a governor they believe has justified his actions to combat the pandemic with scientific evidence. Masks slow the spread of disease, for instance, even if many in the GOP oppose requiring them. DFLers also say Walz needs wide latitude to effectively manage an ever-shifting situation.
Still, some Democrats in the closely-divided House have sided with the GOP at times, frustrated with one-size-fits-all regulations or decision-making that hasn’t included input from lawmakers. The breakaway Democrats also tend to be in closely divided districts where Walz’s regulations may not be popular. Sandstede, who has been particularly vocal in her frustration, won her election last year by 30 votes.
There may be enough Democrats, in fact, to eliminate Walz’s peacetime emergency if they voted with Republicans. But Hortman has been able to effectively block a vote on the issue, in part by putting together a special committee to study Walz’s powers and recommend any changes to peacetime emergency laws, now or in the future.
That committee held hearings earlier this year on two bills introduced by Sandstede and cosponsored by several Democrats from Greater Minnesota. One would have set new and specific parameters around when bars, restaurants, venues, gyms and other businesses could have their capacity limited or be closed to indoor service. Another would have required the governor to get approval from the House and Senate after 30 days to continue any executive order related to the emergency.
The measures, and others like them proposed by Republicans, never advanced to the House floor, however, and the committee hasn’t met since early March. “It feels like this topic has been mothballed in this committee and purposely stalled,” said Rep. Barb Haley, a Red Wing Republican who serves on the panel.
Other Democrats tried to turn some of Walz’s executive orders into law, such as his mask mandate and eviction moratorium, as a prerequisite to rescind the governor’s emergency powers. But the House hasn’t held votes on those measures either. (In part because they could be politically difficult for DFLers who represent more conservative areas.)
Recently, Walz has greatly relaxed capacity limits on gatherings and ended other regulations. Bars and restaurants can operate at 75 percent capacity indoors, for instance, though with a maximum of 250 people. Hortman, the House Speaker, said Walz wouldn’t need to keep his emergency powers “if we can really knock COVID-19 on its ass” through physical distancing, masking and other health and safety measures. Cases and hospitalizations are currently rising in Minnesota as more contagious and more dangerous variants spread rapidly among people who aren’t vaccinated.
But Hortman also said the Legislature could scale down Walz’s authority, as long as the governor “could hang on to some power” in two areas: running vaccination sites and controlling state-run COVID-19 testing locations after the Legislature is slated to leave in mid-May.
“There might be a couple other key powers that he needs to continue to exercise,” Hortman said.
A bill for future pandemics
House lawmakers, meanwhile, still haven’t advanced Sandstede’s measures or most of the controversial proposals to make Walz’s executive orders into law.
Haley said the lack of votes and committee hearings is evidence House leaders aren’t serious about any reform plans, whether they are to rescind Walz’s authority or just alter it. Walz and DFLers are content to have extra power, Haley said, and perhaps bargaining leverage as lawmakers hammer out a two-year budget. Even if the mask mandate and other executive orders are controversial among the GOP, Haley said Republicans are happy to work on other emergency power changes where the parties might find common ground.
(Haley also questioned whether Walz needs emergency authority to run vaccination and testing sites. One House omnibus bill includes legislation directing the Walz administration to continue its vaccination campaign in partnership with local health departments, pharmacies and health care providers.)
Sandstede said she does have a new plan she expects to get a hearing this week and described House leaders as genuine in their efforts to rethink peacetime emergency statutes. Current rules were written decades ago and didn’t take into account a lengthy pandemic, she said. There is “no good off ramp” determining when a peacetime emergency should end under such circumstances.
Her bill, which hasn’t been made public yet, would create a “management phase” after 30 days that Sandstede said would bring the Legislature back as a “coequal branch” of government. A governor would bring executive orders to a small committee of House and Senate leaders, which would make a recommendation to the full Legislature on whether the rules should be ended, kept or modified.
It would also require the Legislature to stay in session during such a peacetime emergency, though Sandstede said this provision may require a constitutional amendment.
Last year, after lawmakers adjourned the regular legislative session, they came back every for a short special sessions to consider Walz’s powers every time the governor extended his authority another 30 days. That left lawmakers out of the loop in the interim, Sandstede said, not holding committee hearings or having input with Walz.
“We need to be working and ready to respond,” she said.
Sandstede said she hopes the Legislature passes her bill before the end of the 2021 regular session. Even if that happened, though, it wouldn’t take effect until after the current peacetime emergency ends, unless there is a specific reason to speed it up, such as if Walz keeps his power much longer.
Until then, as business regulations are relaxed and COVID-19 cases actually trend upward, driven by variants, Sandstede said it makes sense for Walz to keep his powers and continue executive orders that she believes are still beneficial to pandemic response. Since Walz has relaxed most of his regulations, her urgency to make changes quickly has waned, especially since she’s confident the governor will give up his authority soon.
“I truly believe this peacetime emergency will be coming to an end near the end of session barring any really drastic or unforeseen change in (COVID-19) numbers,” Sandstede said.