Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop resigned from her post on Tuesday ahead of an expected firing by the Republican-controlled Senate.
The preemptive move comes during an extended special session in the Minnesota Senate to review a handful of Gov. Tim Walz's Cabinet members. Bishop was at the top of Republicans' target list as the head of a state environmental watchdog agency leading new "clean car" emissions standards pushed by Walz.
The DFL governor said he accepted Bishop's resignation after he was informed by Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka that she would not be confirmed.
"I am extremely disappointed in the Republicans in the Senate who are choosing to use taxpayer dollars to play partisan games and try to politicize an agency charged with protecting Minnesotans from pollution because they refuse to acknowledge the science of climate change," Walz said in a statement announcing her departure. "Commissioner Bishop's qualifications are clear, and her principles are unwavering."
Bishop is one of six appointees whose jobs are up for consideration by the Senate, which announced last week it would stay in special session for several more days to consider confirmations. Only the Senate has the power to confirm or reject gubernatorial appointees. The chamber gave unanimous approval on Tuesday to two of them: Mark Phillips, chair of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, and Office of School Trust Lands Director Aaron Vande Linde.
Gazelka wouldn't confirm whether the Senate planned to reject Bishop's position, but he cited a handful of decisions from the MPCA that Republicans were concerned about, including the "clean cars" standard.
During budget negotiations, Republicans threatened to shut down the area of the state budget that funds state parks over the agency's stricter emissions standard, which also calls for manufacturers to put more electric vehicles on their lots. They eventually relented on a push to eliminate or delay those standards.
"It was going to force us to buy more electric cars than we thought we needed to do in this present time and where we're at," Gazelka said. "These wasn't through the legislative process, this was her jamming them through rule-making or other things."
Walz appointed Bishop to the MPCA role in 2019, pulling her away from a private sector job at Best Buy, where she spent 15 years leading the company's sustainability efforts. She did not appear at her own confirmation hearing on Tuesday after announcing her resignation, but said in a statement she "will not allow the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to be politicized."
"The MPCA Commissioner is a job that never wins a popularity contest, yet, in my view, is one of the most important roles in the Cabinet," Bishop wrote in her resignation letter. "For many, the agency can never go far enough in our protections, while at the same time, a segment of the Republican caucus will always believe the agency goes too far."
Walz appointed MPCA Deputy Commissioner Peter Tester to temporarily lead the agency.
The DFL-led House adjourned last week after a weekslong special session that was called to finish work on the state's two-year budget. Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent said Democrats were blindsided by Republicans' choice to stay in special session to take up confirmation of commissioners who have been on the job since the start of Walz's administration.
She accused Republicans of taking political shots at the administration at the taxpayers' expense.
"I would like to see a reasonable process, which would require that you treat everybody equally, rather than pulling a few out to line them up and take them out," said Kent, DFL-Woodbury. "I don't think this process is in any way reasonable."
Last year, Senate Republicans also fired Walz's first picks for the Department of Labor and Industry and the Department of Commerce, citing in part their regulatory responses during the pandemic.
Though Walz recently relinquished the emergency powers he wielded for nearly 16 months to respond to COVID-19, Gazelka acknowledged tensions have been high between the two parties throughout the pandemic.
"It is an accountability issue, it's the one thing we have that can hold the governor accountable," he said. "Through emergency powers everything was different and took on a different tone."
Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen received praise from members of both parties in an informational hearing on her appointment on Tuesday. Senators also reviewed the work of Minnesota Housing Finance Agency Commissioner Jennifer Ho, pressing her about the pace at which the agency has distributed federal dollars for rental assistance.
Landlords and tenants have raised concerns with the process and software the state is using to give out hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
Ho said the housing agency has boosted the number of contract staff handling applications and is rounding the corner on an application backlog that dates back to the initial wave of requests that came in last April.
"Hindsight is 20/20. We were moving really, really fast in a political environment where the evictions moratorium discussion had the heat turned up. I believe at the end of the day, time will tell that we ran a sound program," Ho said.
Senate Housing Committee Chairman Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, stressed that the hearing was informational and did not hint that any adverse action might be coming for the housing commissioner.
Their confirmations could come up for votes in the full Senate as early as Wednesday.
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044