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As the pandemic winds down, so does the Minnesota Legislature’s battle over Tim Walz’s emergency powers

Now that most of the governor’s executive orders have been rescinded, Walz and the Legislature may reach a deal to end Minnesota’s state of emergency. 

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Work-from-home orders, business and school closures, indoor mask mandates all made every resident of the state aware that Gov. Tim Walz had extraordinary powers.
For more than 15 months, the declarations of peacetime emergency by Gov. Tim Walz impacted everyone in the state of Minnesota.

Soon, they might only directly affect a few hundred.

Work-from-home orders, business and school closures, indoor mask mandates all made every resident of the state aware that Walz had extraordinary powers — and was using them in ways that touched their lives. Month after month Walz extended his declaration by 30 days, an act that allowed him to create more than 100 executive orders, ranging from the licensing of truck drivers and medical staff to the hurried purchasing of medical supplies.

Courts in the state and elsewhere consistently ruled that a state of emergency meant executives could act as one-person legislatures to enact measures to respond to the pandemic. But emergency powers also became one of the most divisive issues in American politics.

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Now, most of those orders have been rescinded. And if a deal to phase out the ban on most evictions in Minnesota is adopted soon, as is expected, the last obvious use of power will have shifted from the executive order to a law passed by the Legislature. A few remaining orders are set to go away by August, for which Walz may only need one more 30-day extension on July 14. 

Does that make the issue moot, or at least academic?

No longer about shutdowns

On the first day of this special session called both to adopt the state budget and to give legislators an opportunity to rescind the latest emergency extension, House Republicans spent nearly two hours arguing that the emergency powers should end immediately. “I think we should celebrate the fact that we know the pandemic is over,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “And the reason I know that we know that it is over is because I can see your faces. And we’re all here together.”

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt
That motion failed on a party line vote, with just one DFL member, Rep. Julie Sanstede of Hibbing, voting yes.

Senate Republicans have voted to rescind those powers eight times: seven in 2020 and once this year. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said this week that regardless of when the emergency powers end, the state needs to reform a law built in a much different era. The East Gull Lake Republican said a constitutional amendment might be needed, something that must pass the House and Senate and be approved by a majority of state voters. “Having those powers for a year and a half is just unacceptable,” he said.

But even for Republicans, the issue has moved from an argument over the governor’s power to shutter businesses and schools to a debate over the checks and balances in the federal and state constitutions.

State Rep. Barbara Haley
State Rep. Barb Haley
Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing, introduced a bill to provide Walz with the authority he needs to acquire and distribute vaccines and for the state to be able to receive enhanced food-stamp aid from the federal government. But she described it broadly. “I don’t think anybody anticipated that (the emergency powers) clause in our constitution would go beyond 30 days, much less 500,” Haley said. “The emergency is over. We’re going to provide the governor the things he needs to manage COVID and we’re going to restore the Legislature as a co-equal branch of government.”

Said Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville: “Gov. Walz has continued with his emergency powers, relinquished from the citizens of Minnesota their right to representation as he silenced the Legislature.”

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Eviction moratorium agreement could clear way for ending emergency

Walz disputed that the bill did what Haley said it would do. And while he has said he is open to talking about changes to the emergency powers law, he has continued to say the powers were needed, that all but a few U.S. governors used similar authority and that he would oppose any move to lift them prematurely. His allies in the House have helped with that position.

Walz has indicated that he sees an end to the emergency declaration this summer, suggesting that a 30-day extension July 14 could be the last. On the eve of this special session, Walz pointed out that the issue has become more academic — and political — than practical since he has been rescinding most of the executive orders invoked by the law. Only a few remain.

“We have to continue to vaccinate,” Walz said. He has said the states must be under an emergency declaration to continue to receive added food stamp money from the federal government that boosted monthly food aid by 15 percent. And he has insisted on a smooth path in transitioning from the eviction moratorium by allowing federal rental assistance to flow to landlords owed back rent and to slow a rush of evictions of those who owe back rent but aren’t eligible for assistance via RentHelpMN.

“Here in Minnesota we don’t have business mitigations on right now,” Walz said after opening a vaccine clinic at the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport. “We’re fully back open again.” 

“What is basically left is the eviction moratorium that I’ve asked the Legislature to take care of, emergency vaccination procedures and federal assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and that’s it,” Walz said just before the session began. 

“I’ve told legislators, ‘Do the eviction moratorium, do a budget, and leave Minnesotans alone then,’ ” Walz said.

This week, GOP and DFL negotiators reached agreement on the so-called off-ramp from the eviction moratorium. That bill will create three phases for which tenants can be evicted or have their leases not renewed. But it will also rescind the emergency order that dates to the first weeks of the pandemic in March of 2020.

It’s that action that could clear the way for talks between the House and Senate, and perhaps the Walz administration, on ending the state of emergency during this session.

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The extra food stamp benefits were extended in the American Rescue Plan but expire at the end of September, and state budget managers think that as long as a declaration of emergency exists in August, the federal government will continue to cover the extra benefits, which are worth about $32 million a month in Minnesota, until the program expires.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
On Monday, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she sees an end to the peacetime emergency “sometime in the not too terribly distant future.” 

She said she wants to be sure the state exhausts the possible federal food stamp enhancements and that the Legislature lets Walz keep his authority to keep virus testing and vaccination operations going. “We need to make sure that if we end the peacetime emergency that he has the authority to continue to test and vaccinate Minnesotans,” she said. 

Even so, a legislative action that would allow a quicker end to the emergency is on the table during the special session, she said.

But Hortman also warned those who work in and around the Legislature to not make plans for July 14, the date that another special session could be called if Walz, in fact, extends the emergency again. It would be the 18th consecutive month that the part-time Minnesota Legislature would have been in session for at least one day.

‘Nobody will care’

Wednesday, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said he doubts the issue of emergency powers will be a campaign issue in 2022 and said that at the waning edge of the pandemic, the only people who care much about the issue are in St. Paul.

“It’s a question of principle,” said Winkler, a DFLer from Golden Valley. “Republican legislators want to feel that the legislative branch finally stepped in to end the peacetime emergency,” while House DFLers want to make sure that the state has the tools to close out the pandemic and be able to respond to any unknowns such as new variants.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler
“It is possible the Legislature puts into statute an early termination of emergency powers, but leaves in place those provisions,” Winkler said. “That is something that could be negotiated, and I expect will be, over the next week.”  

But the timing of ending Walz’s powers would be about the same with either an executive or legislative response, so why pass a bill? It would negate the need for a July 14 special session, Winkler said, and “you would allow Republicans the benefit of having voted to end the peacetime emergency, finally.”

Winkler acknowledged that there are also House DFL members who might relish voting yes on such a bill. “I imagine some people who like to do that for a number of reasons,” he said. “Some would like to show that the Legislature has the final word because they believe in the institution of the House. Some have political pressure and want to show that they are able to stand up to Gov. Walz.

House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu
House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu Brindley
“But I think in 2022 when there is another election, nobody will care who voted to end the emergency powers or how they disappeared, but it is a matter of principle for the GOP base,” Winkler said.

During the Monday debate on rescinding emergency powers, the No. 2 House GOP leader was skeptical that there would be a deal on ending emergency powers. “We’re game for creating an orderly end. Let’s do that,” said Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch. “But as of yet, the majority party — the Democrats in the House of Representatives — have not done so. So what a joke to say that that’s why we’re not ending the emergency powers. Because guess what? That’s in your power to do, and you haven’t done it.”