ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers on Monday, Oct. 12, opted to allow an extension of the state's peacetime emergency to combat the coronavirus as cases again grew in the state.
The GOP-led Minnesota Senate on a 36-31 vote passed a resolution blocking the extension while the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives opted not to take up the measure. Both chambers needed to approve the resolution to put an end to the governor's emergency powers.
The move to continue the emergency and the governor's extended powers came as the Minnesota Department of Health reported 1,178 more had tested positive for COVID-19 and three more Minnesotans died from the illness.
It was the fifth time lawmakers were asked to consider the peacetime emergency this year and at the Capitol tensions over COVID-19 mitigation measures again boiled over. Gov. Tim Walz said the pandemic continues to require flexibility and rapid action from the state and the peacetime emergency allows him and the Executive Council to provide that.
“My top priority remains the health and safety of Minnesotans,” Walz said. “As we watch cases rise dramatically in states around us, we must double down in our efforts to protect Minnesota from the spread of COVID-19.”
Walz in March issued the peacetime emergency and in the months since has used powers granted under it to put a freeze on evictions, set up COVID-19 testing partnerships between the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic that boosted the state's testing capacity, provided benefits to unemployed Minnesotans and deployed the Minnesota National Guard to stockpile scarce personal protective equipment.
The governor also temporarily closed down schools, businesses and houses of worship and set in place a mask mandate. While many schools, restaurants, bars, churches and other businesses have been allowed to reopen, they now face additional constraints to occupancy and COVID-19 mitigation measures.
Republican lawmakers pressed for the end of the peacetime emergency and said they should have a bigger role in deciding the state's COVID-19 response measures. Democrats, meanwhile, said the divided Legislature couldn't act quickly enough to respond to the pandemic and warned of existing orders that could lapse if the state discontinued the emergency.
“There is bipartisan support to end the emergency powers. This is not rocket science,” Rep. Anne Neu, R-North Branch, said. “When we haven’t had an executive power for over a month, clearly this doesn’t fit the definition of an emergency.”
Others voiced frustration about how little input they'd had in shaping the state's pandemic response plans.
"We're not even at the kiddie table as it relates to fixing this problem. We're in the garage with the Jell-O salad that your mom puts out there to keep cool," Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said.
Sen. Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis, spoke in support of Walz’s continuing emergency powers, commending the governor for taking “time, thought and consideration” in his response to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, I believe that my friends across the aisle have been lacking the leadership needed to beat the virus and keep to people safe,” he said on the floor Monday. “Instead of providing real solutions to the problems, we get ideas that aren’t well thought-out and that aren’t going to work.”
Lawmakers on Monday also pushed back against COVID-19 mitigation measures in the House of Representatives and the perceived lack thereof in the Senate.
Sen. Chris Eaton, D-Brooklyn Center, filed a complaint with OSHA over the lax measures in the Senate that she said had put the health of lawmakers and staff members at risk. And House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, had to remind members of a policy mandating masks on the House floor, spurring a handful of Republicans to pull up facemasks that sat below their noses and chins.
Some Republican members resisted calls to keep masks on while they were speaking or voiced frustrations about the masks and face coverings.
"A virus is going to virus," Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said after she was asked to put her mask back on.
Bonding bill still in the works
Legislative leaders said they were still at work putting together a local jobs and projects bill that could pass this week.
Hortman said she remained in negotiations on a proposed $1.37 billion bonding bill and was working to gain Republican support to get the plan the 60% support it needs to pass. She said she didn't have the support of 15 GOP lawmakers, which she would need to waive the rules and bring up the bill for a floor vote.
But she said she remained confident that she could find six Republicans willing to vote for the bill on Wednesday as drafters included projects in the plan that would interest them.
"We have spent months and months trying to get the entire House GOP minority on board and I think we're at a point where we have enough minority members on board to pass the bill on Wednesday," Hortman said.
Gazelka in a statement said the deal had not yet been made and he worried that the bill could be put in jeopardy "by additional amendments, conversations, and backroom antics we are not a part of."
Forum News Service reporter Sarah Mearhoff contributed to this report.