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Governor's emergency powers pose questions that House subcommittee seeks to answer

The House Subcommittee on Legislative Process Reform spent its first meeting Friday reviewing a history of the governor’s emergency powers. Photo by Paul Battaglia
The House Subcommittee on Legislative Process Reform spent its first meeting Friday reviewing a history of the governor’s emergency powers. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Month after month throughout much of 2020, Gov. Tim Walz extended the state’s peacetime emergency for another 30 days to quickly help the state “take swift action to protect the health and wellbeing of our communities, families, and businesses” in response to COVID-19.

And each time he did, after the regular legislative session ended in May, lawmakers returned to St. Paul for an opportunity to weigh in on that decision. Most of those seven special sessions saw the Republican-controlled Senate vote to end the emergency powers and provide the Legislature more of a say, but motions to suspend the rules so such a resolution could be brought up in DFL-controlled House were always unsuccessful.

Supporters of the status quo said some decisions need to be made on short-notice, and going through the legislative process could be time detrimental.

“We couldn’t do things like expediting purchases and contracts, hiring temporary workers, redeploying state employees, renting facilities and equipment and effectively managing the money without the peacetime declaration,” said Joe Kelly, director of the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division.

[MORE: State Emergency Center Operations response]

Now that it’s back in regular session, steps could be taken to give the Legislature more of a voice.

House Subcommittee on Legislative Process Reform 01/22/21

“We’re in the 11th month of a governor having special powers. Are we OK with that continuing or are we not?” said Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington). “If we’re going to continue to allow one person to make the decisions then it doesn’t matter if the decisions are good or bad. … The primary issue is whether we’re going to have a role in this or whether the governor is going to continue making those decisions.”

“I was voted to represent 40,000 people in my district and I don’t think their voices were heard,” said Rep. Dave Lislegard (DFL-Aurora).

“The Legislature needs its power back,” said Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake).

Before the work begins, the House Subcommittee on Legislative Process Reform spent its first meeting Friday receiving a history of the governor’s emergency powers, reviewing executive orders put forth by Walz and getting updated on the current state of COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota.

Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr. (DFL-Winona), the subcommittee chair, said the hope is to draft multiple things that can be a compromise on the gubernatorial emergency powers.

In a letter to the subcommittee, Walz said, “Minnesota has long been a model for good governance rooted in a spirit of collaboration. By working together on transferring these key life-saving provisions from executive to legislative action, we can demonstrate to the country how executive and legislative leaders can come together to nimbly tackle the varied challenges that the pandemic has presented.”

“At the agency we know we have our best effectiveness when we are able to partner with both the executive and legislative branches,” said Assistant Health Commissioner Dan Huff.


Where things stand

Huff said the state’s daily COVID-19 case rate is now 26 per 100,000 residents. The peak has been 120.

But a fight nobody wishes they had to battle is far from over.

“We need to maintain our vigilance as the virus changes over time,” Huff said, adding Minnesota is not an outlier when it comes to restrictions on indoor social gatherings, restaurant and bar service, fitness centers and large indoor venues. The majority of states have a mask mandate.

[MORE: Health Department process for assessing transmission risk]

Huff said mask wearing among Minnesotans is now at 77%. “If we can get to 85% or 90%, that will continue to have an incredible impact on lowering the spread of the disease, saving lives.”

Rep. Barb Haley (R-Red Wing) asked when things will get back to normal.

Huff said it’s largely based on herd immunity, preferably through vaccinations. However, if the state continues to receive the meager amounts of doses from the federal government, it would take more than three years to vaccinate all Minnesotans.

Pelowski said the subcommittee plans to continue its overview next Friday.

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