Minnesota lawmakers returned to the State Capitol on Monday hoping to resolve continuing partisan differences on police accountability, a major public works package and several tax and spending measures.
But first they faced off over Gov. Tim Walz’s decision to extend his emergency powers for another 30 days to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, a move that prompted the second legislative session of the summer, just four months ahead of the November elections.
As expected, the Republican-led Senate quickly passed a resolution to rescind the DFL governor’s emergency powers, which have become entangled in negotiations over police reform and a massive infrastructure borrowing package. The vote was 36-31, with only one lawmaker, DFL Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, crossing party lines.
The DFL-controlled House is unlikely to follow suit, leaving Walz’s pandemic decrees intact at least through the middle of August.
Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she believes the governor’s emergency powers are critical as COVID-19 cases rise nationally, a trend that has prompted intensifying national debates about face masks and opening schools in the fall.
Minnesota Republicans argued that even as the pandemic continues, the state of emergency passed.
“The emergency part of the pandemic is over,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, contending that the state acted quickly during the onset of the virus and now has the needed precautions in place.
But Hortman pointed to the spike in Southern states like Texas, where refrigerated trucks are needed to store bodies because morgues are at capacity. “We have to very seriously consider what it could be in the future for Minnesotans,” she said. “So the emergency is in no respects over.”
Walz characterized the COVID-19 pandemic as an evolving emergency.
“The peacetime emergency has provided us tools to save lives and mitigate the devastating impacts of this pandemic,” he said in a statement Monday extending his emergency powers. “As cases skyrocket in other states, we can’t let our guard down now.”
Every state but Wisconsin has some type of ongoing emergency order to deal with COVID-19, according to National Governors Association data from July 1.
The disagreement over emergency powers continues to threaten action on the infrastructure financing package known as the bonding bill. Long-term state borrowing requires supermajorities in both chambers to pass. GOP House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt has said his caucus will withhold its support for the bonding bill unless Walz relinquishes his emergency powers. That has put him at odds with both Gazelka and Hortman, who say the two issues should not be linked.
Hortman said she pressed Daudt again on the bonding bill Monday morning, but added, “I don’t think he’s there yet.” Daudt made no public comment on the bill Monday.
Legislators are considering more than $1.8 billion in borrowing and spending to support state and local repair and improvement projects, Hortman said. That includes $1.35 billion in general obligation bonds, $300 million in highway bonds, $147 million in appropriation bonds — $100 million of which would be used for housing — and another $38 million in cash.
Bonding discussions also are tied to deal for a GOP tax relief bill for farmers and businesses, as well as to a $58 million spending package that includes some of Democrats’ supplemental spending priorities.
While legislative leaders said they are close to a deal on bonding, they remain deep in negotiations over police reforms. Lawmakers on both sides proposed a slate of police accountability measures following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on May 25, an incident that sparked global protests and a national examination of race and social justice.
While a special session in June failed to produce any agreement, lawmakers on both sides said they are still talking, though largely out of public view.
“We have not stopped working on that since the end of last special session,” Gazelka said. “It feels like there’s real progress that has been happening there.”
Among the more contentious proposals are new statewide use-of-force regulations, a plan to spend $15 million on alternatives to policing, new arbitration rules for officers facing dismissal, and reforms to the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. Both Hortman and Gazelka declined to specify particular areas where they have made progress or struck agreements since the last special session ended on June 20.
Gazelka said legislative leaders will continue closed-door negotiations, with the full Senate not planning to reconvene until Wednesday or next Monday, depending on action in the House. Meanwhile, House Democrats planned to advance police reform and bonding proposals in the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.
Discussions of Walz’s emergency powers Monday often centered on reopening Minnesota schools in the next school year. Walz has said he will make a decision about schools on July 27. Republican senators said they want schools to reopen and allow local school boards and administrators to make decisions about how to manage COVID-19.
“Some members seem to think that one person has somehow the ability to understand what 300 school districts face,” Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said.
Democrats also expressed a desire to open schools. “But we have to do it a way that’s safe,” said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, noting that the needed precautions could be expensive and complicated.