Members of the House and Senate DFL along with Gov. Tim Walz just can’t stop saying that the era of gridlock in the Legislature is over, an important effect of the party winning control of all three levels of state political power last November.
It also means the era of Commissioner Wars is over. With the DFL holding a one-seat majority in the Senate, Walz no longer faces the threat that a GOP Senate can remove his commissioners with a simple majority vote — something they did two times over Walz’s first term. More significantly, perhaps, a Senate majority from a party opposite a sitting governor can threaten to fire commissioners, something that also happened across Walz’s first term.
Even after four years in office, Walz was still awaiting confirmation of all but a few of his top appointees, something that rankled him throughout his first term and even influenced his decisions about calling special sessions.
That changed Tuesday. The governor, fresh off a Monday swearing-in ceremony, said on the 2023 Legislature’s first day that he is asking for action on his appointees. He must resubmit all appointees, even those like Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen who was a rare confirmed member of the cabinet.
“For restoring of trust in the system, confirm these commissioners,” Walz said after visiting with House and Senate members, white chocolate pumpkin blondie bars in hand, to welcome them on their first day. “One way or the other, that should be done as quickly as possible.”
In addition to commissioners appointed during his first term that were never confirmed, Walz appointed five new members of his cabinet due to resignations and retirements. Among them are a new head of public safety Bob Jacobson, Department of Health Commissioner Brooke Cunningham and Department of Education head Willie Jett, three prominent positions during the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest and increases in crime following the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“I would like them to go through the process. I want the Senate to use their authority to do this,” Walz said. “I want Minnesotans to meet these incredibly qualified candidates for commissioner. I want them to be asked hard questions. I do not want them to be used as leverage and pawns.
“All I’ve ever asked for is, give them a fair hearing, do it early so they can go about their job. It is not enough to disqualify a commissioner because you disagree ideologically with them.”
New Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said she has heard the governor’s message. Her caucus was highly critical of how the previous GOP majority handled confirmations. Four senators introduced a bill to put a 60-day time limit on how long the Senate could wait before acting on appointments.
“I’ve told our committee chairs to start talking to the agencies, to start talking to the commissioners and get them scheduled,” she said Tuesday. Her intent is to have confirmation votes on all top-level appointees before the end of the 2023 session in May.
Governors appoint hundreds of people to positions — both full-time and volunteer — ranging from the commissioner of the Department of Transportation to the plumbing board. Most are never confirmed, serving once a letter of appointment is sent to the Senate. Many work under that uncertainty for their entire terms, until they resign or are replaced when a new governor is elected. A handful, however, are brought to the Senate floor and confirmed or brought to the Senate floor and rejected. Some resign when faced with a vote to not confirm. Over the last two decades, just seven have been rejected and three resigned in the face of that fate.
Two Walz appointees were removed in 2020 — Labor and Industries Commissioner Nancy Leppink and Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley. Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop resigned in 2021 with the knowledge that if she didn’t, she too, would be not confirmed. But some Senate Republicans made noises about removing then-Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm over disagreements with her management of the pandemic.
“We’re fighting a pandemic and the Senate is playing ‘Battleship’ with our commissioners,” quipped an administration official in 2020.