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Governor’s emergency powers unchanged after sixth special session

House Speaker Melissa Hortman gavels in the sixth special session of 2020 Nov. 12. Photo by Andrew VonBank
House Speaker Melissa Hortman gavels in the sixth special session of 2020 Nov. 12. Photo by Andrew VonBank

The debate shifted somewhat but the result was the same Thursday, as House members convened for a brief special session that once again left unchanged the peacetime emergency powers Gov. Tim Walz has used since March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Walz issued a proclamation on Monday calling the sixth special session of 2020 and notifying the Legislature he would extend the peacetime emergency by another 30 days. Like the year’s five previous special sessions, a motion to bring up a resolution that would have ended the governor’s emergency powers was dismissed. But this time it was done via a quick voice vote.

Lawmakers instead spent nearly three hours discussing a motion to consider SSHF19, sponsored by Rep. Barb Haley (R-Red Wing), which would have given the Legislature more oversight of the governor’s powers rather than ending them outright. The motion failed 73-60.

The bill would have allowed Walz the authority to continue to issue executive orders, but given the Legislature the option to end or modify them after 30 days.

With most members participating remotely, Rep. Barb Haley appears nearly alone in the House Chamber Nov. 12 as she makes a motion to declare an emergency in order to bring up HF19 during the sixth special session of 2020. Photo by Andrew VonBank

“Right now the problem is the only way for us to end an executive order is to end the peacetime emergency altogether,” Haley said. “This is not what I’m trying to do.”

She wants the Legislature to have a larger role in the decisions being made, and hoped the bill would increase communication and collaboration with Walz. Haley said the proposal would also allow small-business owners and educators more opportunity to provide input.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) argued the bill would only provide Republican legislators more opportunity to second guess Walz and the real urgency was for lawmakers to unify around a message encouraging all Minnesotans to follow public health guidelines.

Winkler said the pandemic’s “alarming and deadly surge” is the result of people not following those directives.

“COVID will exist regardless,” Winkler said. “The question is not whether people will get sick and die; the question is how many get sick or die because we are not willing to provide the right level of leadership.”

The Department of Health on Wednesday reported 56 deaths from the virus, a single-day record.

Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) said SSHF19 was the kind of thoughtful and pragmatic approach needed to address the pandemic and other significant issues, such as the budget deficit and public safety concerns, facing the state. He encouraged members to look at one of the governor’s most recent executive orders.

House Floor debate on modifying the peacetime emergency law 11/12/20

“It is important for members to read and understand what is an increasingly dangerous scope of power in terms of government regulating the activities of individuals in their homes and private gatherings,” Garofalo said. “The governor is criminalizing activity that goes above and beyond public health concerns.”

Walz used his emergency powers to issue an order Tuesday that requires bars and restaurants to end in-person service by 10 p.m. each night beginning Friday, although walk-up, drive-up and window services, along with deliveries, are still allowed. The order also prohibits all social gatherings of more than 10 people and members of more than three households.

“In taking these measures, we hope to avoid the need for the more drastic restrictions that we have seen in other regions, such as the recent complete closure of many bars, restaurants, and nonessential establishments in England, Germany, France, and Belgium,” Walz said.

Rep. Alice Mann (DFL-Lakeville), a physician and front-line health care provider, said the state’s hospitals and emergency rooms are nearing capacity and urged her fellow lawmakers to focus on offering as much assistance as possible to those who are suffering rather than how much power the governor has.

“I can tell you that recently a letter has gone to the governor from 400 health care providers in the state of Minnesota asking for more restrictions because we can’t keep up,” Mann said. “We can’t do this if everyone doesn’t pitch in. … I am urging you today, I am begging you today, to focus on what’s important.”

But House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) said the bill would do nothing to curb the governor’s emergency powers.

“It simply lets us review them 30 days later after he makes an executive order,” Daudt said, adding that he’s been asking the Legislature to take its role in the process more seriously for months.

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