Republican lawmakers ousted state Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink on Wednesday as they continued to clash with Gov. Tim Walz’s administration over his decision to extend the peacetime emergency he’s used since March to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The confirmation of Leppink, who Walz appointed in early 2019, was defeated in a 34-32 Senate vote. The move, which Republicans tied in part to her regulatory actions during the pandemic, represented a sharp and unexpected rebuke to the DFL governor during the Legislature’s third special session.
“Businesses across the state need a responsive and supportive commissioner as we recover from COVID. Leppink has instead increased regulations on business and even been hostile to businesses. And it’s not responding to the needs they have as we address reopening and compliance with COVID executive orders,” said GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.
The Senate rarely wields its power to reject executive branch appointments, and Democrats decried the lack of notice about the vote. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, called the action an “ambush” and cited a list of examples of industry groups and labor organizations that support the commissioner.
As the head of the Department of Labor and Industry, Leppink oversees worker health and safety requirements, wage standards, workers’ compensation and youth job training. The agency has been on the front lines of working with businesses and employees to navigate the coronavirus.
Walz said after the vote that he is pained and concerned that the state has been “undercut” as it tries to get people back to work and keep Minnesotans safe. He said Leppink’s job included getting front-line workers protective equipment and helping meatpacking plants resume operations safely.
“To have Nancy Leppink get caught in the middle of petty political move puts Minnesotans in danger,” Walz said.
The move to oust Leppink was accompanied by a warning that others may follow. Gazelka said he told Walz early this year that he thought Leppink was the wrong fit. She is not the only commissioner the Senate GOP is concerned about, he said, and the Senate wants to hold hearings on other Walz cabinet picks.
The Republican-led Senate also voted 36-31 to end Walz’s emergency powers. But the DFL majority in the House blocked a similar GOP effort, voting it down 71-61.
The votes, which were expected, came as Walz extended the pandemic emergency for another 30 days. Called into a special session for the third time this summer to review Walz’s new orders, majorities in both chambers would be needed to terminate the powers the DFL governor has used to temporarily close schools, businesses, and mandate the use of face masks indoors.
Despite their differences over the administration’s pandemic response, the two sides came together to provide grants to help service providers for adults with disabilities, who have been struggling during the pandemic. The more than $30 million will come from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and is intended to help day service providers stay in business during and after the pandemic.
“Day service providers play a vital role in helping people with disabilities live their best life. Ensuring that we have a strong system of supports in place when the pandemic ends will be critical to individuals with disabilities and our state as a whole,” said Sue Schettle, CEO of the disability services advocacy nonprofit ARRM.
Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, had pushed for the measure for months and said it will ensure Minnesotans with disabilities have a place to go and feel validated. He said it will help hundreds of service providers and tens of thousands of people they serve.
Legislators also used the one-day special session to make modifications to a sweeping set of police reforms they passed last month. They pushed back the deadlines for officers to receive some types of mandated training, gave more time for law enforcement organizations across the state to submit data to the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board and extended the time frame for the first meeting of a POST Board advisory council.
While legislators were able to take bipartisan action on police accountability and disability services, the day also featured increasingly familiar rhetoric over the governor’s actions on the pandemic.
Gazelka renewed Republican arguments that Walz’s emergency powers are no longer needed and the state has marshaled enough resources to handle cases that come to the hospitals.
“We think this virus is real, is serious. We need to be aggressive against it. But to allow the governor to continue to have emergency powers like never before, and giving up all of our liberties, is a mistake,” Gazelka said.
In announcing his fifth extension of the peacetime emergency, Walz said the executive orders have helped the state build its capacity in hospitals, secure personal protective equipment and launch a plan for testing.
“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present an unprecedented and rapidly evolving challenge to our state,” the governor said.
Throughout the pandemic that hit Minnesota in March, Republicans have argued against Walz’s ability to make unilateral decisions about the state’s response without legislative input.
Democrats argue that it’s not responsible to end Walz’s powers without a plan for how the Legislature would take over pandemic response. But they acknowledged the need to look at ways to eventually transition away from emergency powers.
Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, proposed setting a threshold that would end the state of emergency once there are fewer than 200 new cases a week. Republicans, and some Democrats, rejected the proposal.