ST. PAUL — Minnesota will remain under a state of peacetime emergency for another 30 days after the state's Executive Council on Monday, March 15, voted to extend the governor's executive authority to swiftly respond to COVID-19.
Gov. Tim Walz requested the extension citing a new concern posed by variants of COVID-19, which have proven to be more transmissible, and he said he would still need to be able to react quickly as the pandemic continues to spread in the state. The emergency declaration allows Walz to enact policy without the Legislature's approval, which has irked lawmakers who want more of a role in pandemic response.
The Minnesota Senate in response to the extension voted 38-29 to advance a plan to require the governor to seek approval from both chambers of the Legislature before extending a peacetime emergency. Republican lawmakers in the Senate in the last year passed several resolutions opposing the continued emergency but a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives voted to allow additional extensions. The split has allowed the peacetime emergency to continue for one year.
Under the Senate proposal, the power dynamic would flip and if one chamber voted down the peacetime emergency, they'd be able to end it.
“There’s an imbalance and it’s become very clear that we need to restore balance to the use of those emergency powers and make those branches (of government) coequal again,” Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, said, laying out his proposal. “That makes us an active participant, that makes us partners in the emergency."
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The executive powers have allowed the state to scale up testing capacity, deploy the Minnesota National Guard to deliver personal protective equipment and administer tests and place a moratorium on evictions. And they've also spurred backlash from Minnesotans who felt the orders to restrict businesses, require masks or determine school schedules or activities were overly harsh.
Democrats in the Senate argued that the divided Legislature seldom acts quickly to resolve problems and wouldn't be able to pass legislation in a hurry if an emergency situation popped up. They also said the emergency response at the Capitol could get bogged down in partisan disagreement.
“There is a path to do this and the majority party has full power to participate in that process. They could’ve done it for the past year, if so inclined, but instead, it’s really not about a concrete plan, actionable steps we want to take. It’s about get rid of it, end it now, and then we’ll see what happens,” Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said. "That's not responsible. And I think Minnesotans have spoken up and said they appreciate the balance."
Walz on Monday told the Executive Council that without orders issued under the peacetime emergency, thousands of Minnesotans could face evictions and other protections could fall by the wayside without replacement in state law.
"It's not as simple as saying, 'Just stop the peacetime emergency,' because there will be a cascade of effects that will happen and there needs to be a firewall against that," Walz said.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state is steadily ramping up vaccinations against COVID-19 but the spread of more transmissible variants in Minnesota poses a new threat. And she said the state needs to retain its ability to act quickly if situations require it.
"The variants do introduce kind of a new wild card," Malcolm said. "I think it's going to make it extremely important that we be nimble and able to react quickly to control hotspots of outbreaks as we see them."
The Executive Council on Monday approved the rollback of several COVID-19 mitigation measures on bars, restaurants, social gatherings and religious services. Those took effect at noon Monday.