ST. PAUL — Lawmakers adjourned a special legislative session for the first time this year without taking much of a swing at Gov. Tim Walz's emergency powers Thursday, Nov. 12, and they signaled that more bipartisan efforts to combat coronavirus might be on the way.
Walz on Thursday issued another 30-day extension of the state's peacetime emergency to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing him to keep his emergency executive powers. While GOP lawmakers in five prior special sessions since June voted against the extension, they didn't put up a similar argument Thursday.
Instead, they altered their proposal and asked for an option to alter or end executive orders 30 days after they take effect. And lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle urged Minnesotans to take the pandemic seriously.
The discussions came as the Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday reported a record number of new COVID-19 cases in the state at 7,228 and 39 more Minnesotans perished from the illness and its complications, the second-highest daily number yet. And state health officials voiced their concerns about the swell in illness that they warned was on the state's horizon.
The peacetime emergency has given Walz broad authority to limit capacity in bars, restaurants and other businesses, require face masks in public and to issue a stay-at-home order earlier this year that allowed Minnesotans to leave home only for causes deemed essential. The order also allowed the state to activate the Minnesota National Guard, scale-up testing under partnerships between the state, University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic.
If allowed to lapse, existing protections and partnerships issued under the peacetime emergency could end. And while Republican lawmakers in prior special sessions had brought forth resolutions aimed at preventing another extension of the peacetime emergency, they took a different track Thursday.
The Senate didn't bring anything that would block the governor's powers and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, on MPR said while GOP lawmakers continue to advocate for a bigger role in shaping COVID-19 response, they wouldn't vote to end the peacetime emergency this month.
"The surge is here; it's absolutely serious," Gazelka said. "People need to pay attention to it, but we don't think the governor has to do it by himself."
Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing, on Thursday brought forth legislation that would keep in place Walz's executive orders but would give lawmakers the option to alter or to strike executive orders after they've been in effect for 30 days. Haley said the move would give lawmakers a stronger voice in discussions about the state's response to COVID-19.
“Nothing in this bill diminishes the seriousness of this disease and the situation that Minnesotans are facing right now," Haley said. "We are trying to provide a little opening in this stalemate over emergency powers by continuing to give the governor the flexibility he needs to respond in a timely fashion and yet to bring the Legislature along."
The bill didn't come up for a vote after it failed to get the votes needed to bring it up on the floor. Democrats in that chamber spoke about the growing COVID-19 case rates in the state and rapidly shrinking hospital capacity to treat those struggling with the disease.
"We are not OK. We are struggling to take care of you. We are struggling to take care of your families," emergency room physician and Rep. Alice Mann, D-Lakeville, said. "Our ERs are full. Our hospitals are full. In Rochester alone, COVID-19 hospitalizations have tripled in the last two weeks."
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, on Thursday morning told reporters that Republicans' decision to back away from resolutions aimed at blocking the peacetime emergency signaled a positive step.
"We may be on a road to the first unified response to COVID-19 since March," Winkler said. "We should be hopeful that we are on that path, but it has taken far too long to get there."
The Minnesota Senate on Thursday also elected Dave Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, to the position of Senate president in that chamber. GOP leaders there said the move was aimed to preempt losing a majority as appointments at the federal level potentially shuffle leadership positions in the state Legislature.
Republican leaders in separate statements suggested that former Senate President Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, could be reelected to that position early next year when the Legislature kicks off the 2021 legislative session.