Republicans who control the Minnesota Senate pushed back Thursday against some of Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders that aim to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Walz’s decision to change unemployment rules without legislative approval “does not appear to pass constitutional standard.” Other Republicans questioned the need for blanket closings of restaurants and other businesses, saying it could do grave economic harm in rural areas that so far have been little touched by COVID-19.
“While we understand the necessity of Governor Walz to lead in this time of crisis, that leadership should not be unilateral and unchecked,” Gazelka said in a statement.
Gazelka’s statement came amid growing signs of GOP discontent with Walz’s previous executive orders temporarily closing bars, restaurants and other businesses. It also comes as the administration mulls new safety measures, including requiring Minnesotans to shelter in place.
Several lawmakers, all Republicans, have expressed concerns about the impact of Walz’s orders on small businesses in their towns in Greater Minnesota.
“The governor’s order puts these small businesses in an impossible position,” state Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said in a statement addressing the closings in the hospitality industry. “These small businesses, and their many hourly wage earners, will undoubtedly suffer because of this order. I urge the governor to reconsider the financial impact of his order on small business owners that concurrently has the potential to make them criminals for simply trying to earn a living.”
Newman is one of at least eight Senate Republicans questioning the Democratic governor’s use of executive power and its impact on the rural economy. Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, weighed in on Twitter, saying “where is the statutory authority?” after Walz’s order closing most public eateries.
“The Walmarts and Targets of the world get to stay open,” she later tweeted. “Small business, the backbone of the economy is shut down.”
While none of the Minnesota lawmakers have publicly questioned the severity of the outbreak, the criticism follows partisan sniping in Washington about President Donald Trump’s initial declarations minimizing the virus threat — a skepticism he has abandoned in recent days. Some national polls also show that Republicans, as a whole, are less concerned about the virus threat.
In Minnesota, where lawmakers quickly came together to unanimously approve a $200 million aid package, the debate has focused mainly on the impact of temporary closures on the economy. Gazelka said in an interview with WCCO Radio Tuesday that he is “concerned about what happens with our small businesses.”
“I’ve had many people reaching out saying this is crippling us,” he said. “We don’t know if we can survive if this happens for any length of time.”
But the East Gull Lake Republican stopped short of criticizing Walz directly, saying he doesn’t want to “second guess” the governor. He said while there’s “no perfect answer here,” legislative leaders and Walz continue to work together to address the crisis.
“The governor is trying to make the best decisions he can, not knowing the future,” he said. “Would some of my decisions be different? I can’t say because I don’t have the information he has.”
Not all Republicans have been critical. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, called the closures “painful — but nothing compared to what a collapse of health care system would bring.” And even many Republicans criticizing the order also applauded the swift and bipartisan nature of the virus response.
Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, said that while he appreciated the “end goal” of curbing the virus, he worries about “hitting the families employed at small businesses all over” his central Minnesota district.
“If this is limited to just 10 days, perhaps the majority of small businesses could hang on and survive,” Mathews said. “If this drags on for weeks or months, I wonder if these actions will cause lasting damage.”
Walz’s order on bars and restaurants followed his decision to close public schools. It also extends to a range of venues that attract crowds or bring people together in close quarters, including breweries, coffee shops, gyms, spas and theaters.
To mitigate the strain on employers and workers, the administration expanded unemployment benefit eligibility and deferred monthly sales tax payments due this week.
Walz has defended the actions, which follow top public health officials’ guidance to limit and discourage public gatherings.
“I hear that pain of those small-business owners, but the fact of the matter is, not a single health care expert in the state, not a single epidemiologist, agrees with them that we should have done in that way,” Walz said Wednesday. “There’s going to be hard decisions to make here, I would just ask them, there will be plenty of time to criticize me and run ads about that in time, but come and ask about this. Try and come to us.”
Legislative leaders and the Walz administration are weighing further actions to curb the spread of infection. Options could include additional executive orders, including a requirement that Minnesotans shelter in place, essentially requiring people to stay in their homes except for essential business.
Gazelka said Thursday the Senate plans to return from its virtual recess and resume some committee hearings so it can “pass important and timely legislation.”
Garofalo urged colleagues to recognize the seriousness of the situation and embrace a balanced approach.
“During this epidemic we can BOTH accept temporary limits on our personal freedoms and remain vigilant against efforts to permanently expand government power,” he tweeted. “The key word is balance. Trust leaders who communicate balance. Be skeptical of those who advocate otherwise.”