Several state agency leaders’ jobs — and the fraying relationship between GOP lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz — could hang in the balance of an upcoming special session of the Legislature.
The DFL governor is expected to call the fourth session of the summer on Friday, despite the possibility that Senate Republicans could use the occasion to vote out more members of his administration.
Republican opposition to the governor’s use of emergency powers for the pandemic came to a head in August when they rejected Nancy Leppink as the leader of the Department of Labor and Industry.
Since then Senate Republicans have held a series of hearings on other Walz appointees, including Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency head Laura Bishop and Joe Sullivan, the newest member of the Public Utilities Commission. Republicans have cited a number of policy differences, particularly on an oil pipeline replacement in northern Minnesota.
The new session — called to review an expected extension of the COVID-19 emergency declaration — also could renew tensions over an unfinished package of construction bonds and a looming budget shortfall.
But as the November elections approach and campaign rhetoric ramps up, the chances for agreement on a bonding bill appear to be dwindling. And Republicans’ growing concerns over Walz’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with his environmental positions on car-emission restrictions and the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline, have drawn GOP lawmakers’ attention to his cabinet members.
“That is the one tool of accountability that we have,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said of the Senate’s power to oust agency leaders. “And if the governor has complete, unilateral powers, then we want to make sure that they are paying attention to the legislative branch as well.”
Walz has closed schools, limited business operations and required masks indoors to stem the spread of the virus. Republicans, who control the upper chamber of the divided Legislature, have been largely powerless to check the actions they adamantly oppose.
Senators voted out Leppink, citing her acts in “regulating, harassing or closing businesses” during the pandemic as one reason for her removal.
Gazelka and Walz held a private meeting Thursday “to try to turn down the heat” and restore their working relationship, Walz said. They both called it productive. But hanging over the meeting was the fact that Walz plans to continue using emergency orders and Gazelka has not decided whether Republicans will remove the three officials whose jobs they reviewed over the past month.
Some legislators questioned whether Walz would stop convening the Legislature every 30 days, something he has done each time he extends the peacetime emergency declaration that started in March. Special sessions give lawmakers a chance to reject each extension. But the DFL-led House would have to agree with the GOP Senate to end the emergency, something Democrats oppose.
If Walz extended the emergency without calling a special session in September, Gazelka said, “there would likely be a lawsuit.”
However, DFL Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent said Walz should consider all his options given the possibility of other removals like Leppink’s, which she said her GOP colleagues viewed as “political retribution.”
Walz said he is asking Republicans about their issues with commissioners to try to avoid another ouster.
“I am certainly frustrated,” he said. “It is a terrible thing that happened, but I’m trying to figure out a way to get us back to the table.”
Senators can vote out commissioners appointed by the governor independently of the House. The last top officials the Senate removed was DFL Public Utilities Commission Chairwoman Ellen Anderson in 2012 and Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau in 2008. Molnau was also serving as GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s lieutenant governor at the time. Those votes, like the one removing Leppink, were decried as political.
Removing key state leaders could disrupt the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and management of the economic downturn, said former Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans. He said it could also make it difficult for governors to recruit strong candidates. The state is already at a hiring disadvantage as the top posts pay considerably less than similar private-sector positions.
After voting out Leppink, senators held hearings to question commissioners about regulatory decisions, their philosophical approaches to their jobs, and their relationships with the Legislature.
Bishop, the MPCA commissioner, came under fire for moving forward with a stricter emissions standard for car manufacturers. Legislators were fairly complimentary during a hearing on Sullivan, the PUC vice chairman, who noted he supported allowing Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline to move forward based on the project’s merits.
Republicans had the sharpest words for Kelley, who heads the Commerce Department. His agency appealed the utilities commission’s approval of Line 3, a key campaign issue for many legislators who say the state is blocking job creation by delaying the plan. Kelley served 14 years as a DFL legislator and was involved in removing Pawlenty’s education commissioner in 2004.
Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said it “bothers me to no end” that Kelley did not help come up with a solution for Line 3, adding, “It makes me question whether you are in a position you should be in the administration.”
Gazelka noted that he talked to Walz in February about moving Leppink and Kelley to other positions.
Democrats such as Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, defended Kelley’s qualifications. Dibble called Kelley’s review “a kangaroo hearing,” adding, “It sounds like decisions have already been made.” He also denounced Bishop’s hearing, saying the GOP had a curated list of complaints.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, acknowledged that some of the Senate’s concerns are political. But he said Bishop is in a political position.
“You represent the governor that put you there,” he said. “And we certainly appreciate you coming here and answering for his policies.”
While the Senate might be occupied with commissioner debates when legislators gather Friday, House members could be focused on a bonding bill — the long-delayed infrastructure borrowing package. Even if they reach an agreement on spending or borrowing, they could not vote on it until Sept. 20 as the state must observe a financial “quiet period” following another recent bond sale.
Lawmakers in both parties have said they want to do bonding, and DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said if they reach a deal, Walz could call another special session this fall. But she noted negotiations between the governor, House and Senate tend to get less friendly closer to the November election.
“I would like to see all three of us on good terms and able to work together and put the election-season shenanigans in the space they deserve and keep the policymaking discussions in a more positive area,” Hortman said. As to approving Walz’s commissioners, she said, “It’s time for a truce on that.”
Staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.