ST. PAUL — Minnesota Senate Republicans this week flexed one of the only options they have to lash back at the Walz administration over its coronavirus response measures, further fueling division between two camps.

Unable to end the governor's peacetime emergency for COVID-19 or significantly influence his policies, senators turned to one area where they have substantial leverage: the state's commissioner confirmation process.

The move spurred emotional reactions from lawmakers, who'd grown fed up with Gov. Tim Walz's executive actions, as well as from labor groups, administrators and others, who were shocked at the surprise move to fire the head of a state agency.

In the only divided Legislature in the country, the Minnesota Senate on Wednesday, Aug. 12, voted to oust Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink, citing concerns about her administration of labor laws at amusement parks, wedding barns and other businesses.

The move came as a surprise to Democrats who hold the minority in the chamber and to the Walz administration that said it was deeply painful to watch an appointee be removed with no recourse. The department's deputy commissioner took the helm following Leppink's departure.

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The Republican majority in the Senate said it would review other commissioners for possible confirmation or dismissal, a message Democrats took as a threat. And Senate Majority Paul Gazelka and Gov. Tim Walz said that the COVID-19 pandemic and clashes over how to address it had eroded a relationship between the two.

“They didn’t try to pretend that they were concerned about the commissioner’s competency, they didn’t try to pretend that they were concerned about what Minnesota businesses or workers thought, they simply saw this as a way of political payback," Walz said. "There will be a reckoning on this."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz spoke with reporters at the Minnesota Capitol on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, after the Senate voted not to confirm Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz spoke with reporters at the Minnesota Capitol on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, after the Senate voted not to confirm Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Gazelka on Wednesday told the Senate that commissioner confirmations had been stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest stemming from the killing of George Floyd. But with the state no longer facing substantial threats, the Senate could turn to the reviewing Walz's appointees, he said. Most were appointed in early 2019 and have served in their offices since.

Gazelka acknowledged that he'd given fellow legislative leaders and the governor a last-second heads up that Leppink's possible confirmation vote was coming because he didn't want to be impeded.

“I didn’t want to be undermined again to destroy the direction that I knew we needed to go," he said.

Republican senators said they'd heard from business owners that the department flagged their workplace for violations that had previously been subject to a waiver. And they didn't feel Leppink came to the table with counter offers for a wage theft law or a plan to grant workers' compensation to first responders sickened with COVID-19.

"The Department of Labor and Industry has to have somebody that can connect to labor and connect to industry and work with them in what feels like cooperation, not a hammer that feels like it’s about to come down every time they make a misstep," Gazelka said.

But during the Senate debate and after the vote to oust Leppink, dozens of labor organizations, business owners and current and former state officials defended her work. And a day after the vote, labor groups said the move to remove the commissioner was a misstep.

“We’re disappointed about that, just to be frank,” said Jason George, business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. “It creates a little turmoil in the agency and I’ve expressed that opinion to my Republican friends very clearly, including Sen. Gazelka and his colleagues.”

Labor union leaders were set to hold a news conference at the Capitol Friday to denounce the move.

Broken ties between branches?

The state's divided government had found a way to work well since lawmakers and the Walz administration took office in early 2019. Lawmakers approved and the governor signed into law a budget with minor dust-ups, legislative leaders and the governor developed a rapport that helped them expedite early COVID-19 relief funding, and they found a way to approve a compromise set of police reform measures following the police killing of Floyd.

But Gazelka on Wednesday said the relationship between the Legislature and the governor had frayed. And Walz said it would be harder to work with Republicans in good faith after they took out Leppink.

The schism could have impacts on future COVID-19 response strategies, a proposed $1.8 billion bonding bill likely to be considered next month and other legislation that could become relevant ahead of the election.

"Texting at 3:29 and picking off a commissioner on political reasons, that’s a pretty big hurdle to overcome," Walz said. "There may be a handful of situations in the history of Minnesota where anything close to this happened, just the abject disregard."

Gazelka told senators that he had no other recourse but to quietly spring the vote on Wednesday.

“It frankly should tell you that there is some dysfunction between the legislative branch, particularly the Senate, and particularly the governor,” Gazelka said. “There are so many things that are happening that we are trying to move and he’s trying to stop.”

He mentioned an early Senate iteration of a public projects and jobs bill that he had hoped to pass during a June special session. The $1 billion plan had Democratic support, but Walz called senators to defeat the proposal, saying they should hold out for a heftier set of projects.

And the GOP Senate majority again Wednesday tried to end the governor's peacetime emergency to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic but the DFL-led House of Representatives voted down a motion to consider the resolution.

Gazelka and other GOP lawmakers for months have tried to sway Walz's decisions relative to the pandemic and have asked that he end the peacetime emergency that expands his executive authority to deploy the National Guard, pull down federal funds and issue executive orders. They said lawmakers should be more involved in deciding how to combat the coronavirus.

But Walz has said the pandemic still poses a threat to the state and he needs to keep extending the peacetime emergency to maintain protections he's issued in dozens of executive orders and allow the flexibility to quickly act as the pandemic continues.

And he and others worried that Senate Republicans could condition commissioner confirmations on getting policies they liked from the commissioners or the Walz administration. Gazelka listed concerns about the commissioners of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Management and Budget and said they would come up for review.

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, told reporters she had deep concerns about the Senate majority holding the ability to bring up commissioners as a leverage point.

“This has been held back as some sort of political weapon. And these are people who have responsibilities for our kids and our schools and our jobs and our workers, to our workplaces and it is not OK,” Kent said. “We have to look at this process that they can just use pure partisan way to say we’re bringing these people down.”