DFL Gov. Tim Walz and Senate Republican Leader Paul Gazelka vowed Thursday to reinforce their “mutual respect” after a sharp exchange of letters criticizing each other’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The two leaders emerged from a meeting at the State Capitol saying they were working to reset a relationship strained by months of discord over staunch GOP opposition to the governor’s extensive use of emergency powers to combat the pandemic.
“It’s a relationship that I value. It has become a little bit heated, obviously, we’re in an election year. There are differences,” Walz said. “This meeting was to reinforce that mutual respect we have for one another.”
The tensions escalated Thursday after Walz aide Chris Schmitter sent an open letter to Gazelka accusing him of being “shockingly absent” at a number of “critical informational and decisionmaking meetings,” including the recent visit from Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House’s coronavirus response task force.
“The Governor wants to work together across party lines to protect the health of Minnesotans, but you make that difficult when you choose not to attend critically important meetings focused on our state’s pandemic response efforts,” Schmitter wrote.
It served as a response to a letter Gazelka sent to the governor last week asking what criteria he will use to eventually relinquish the emergency powers he’s used to close down schools and businesses and issue stay-at-home orders.
Walz has slowly dialed back some closures since his first emergency order in March, but Republicans have repeatedly called for him to end the ongoing state of emergency and include the Legislature more in the state’s pandemic response.
“Now, over 165 days later, Minnesotans still have no clearer picture of when this ‘emergency’ will end,” Gazelka wrote. “Our state has beat all COVID modeling expectations and deserves to be told when the excessive use of executive authority will cease.”
Gazelka ended his letter stating “there is no longer an emergency,” a characterization Schmitter said “could not be farther from the truth. The day that you wrote your letter to the Governor, 14 Minnesotans perished from the virus,” Schmitter wrote back.
But both sides came out of a closed-door meeting Thursday saying they had a productive conversation and pledged to try to restore their relationship ahead of another special session of the Legislature next week to review a potential extension of the peacetime emergency.
Gazelka said Republicans and the governor came together last year to pass a two-year state budget and a tax bill, but Walz’s continuing use of emergency powers for the pandemic has garnered growing GOP opposition.
“We acknowledge that COVID is serious, that we’re in a pandemic. I would argue that we’re not any longer in an emergency, but that doesn’t mean we don’t both take it seriously,” Gazelka said.
Walz has extended the state of emergency five times since March to continue responding to the pandemic, automatically triggering three special sessions of the Legislature.
The House and Senate have the power to vote to end a state of emergency, but the DFL-led House has rejected several GOP attempts to do so. Republicans’ growing frustration with the situation was evident during the latest special session in August, when they rejected the nomination of Nancy Leppink, Walz’s pick to lead the Department of Labor and Industry.
Since then, Republicans in the Senate have held a handful 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.
The governor is expected to extend his emergency powers for a sixth time next week — triggering the fourth special session of the Legislature this year — but Gazelka wouldn’t say if the Senate plans to take up any of the pending commissioner appointments.
Walz said they only discussed commissioner confirmations at a “high level,” but he stressed that they are essential to his administration in the midst of the pandemic.
“I need them in the middle of all of this and that uncertainty is not helpful,” he said.
Much was left unresolved, including the criteria Gazelka had asked for in ending Walz’s use of emergency powers and whether lawmakers will pass a bill this year to fund major infrastructure improvements around the state. Differences over the emergency powers and police reform have derailed a package of construction project bonds worth more than $1 billion. Bonding bills require a three-fifths majority in both chambers to pass, meaning the majority parties must garner support from lawmakers in the minority. The Republican minority caucus in the House has yet to agree to pass the bonding bill, citing the governor’s continued use of emergency powers.
“I’m still optimistic about a bonding bill for wastewater infrastructure, roads and bridges, that kind of thing,” Gazelka said. “I do think there’s movement in the House, so we’ll have to pay attention to that.”
The special session is expected to convene next Friday and last one day, Gazelka said.