ST. PAUL — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz will keep his emergency powers for another 30 days after a state council agreed to extend the state's peacetime emergency for COVID-19 and the Minnesota House of Representatives rejected an effort to block it.
The emergency first went into effect in March 2020 and lawmakers and the governor on Monday, June 14, signaled that its conclusion was on the horizon as key policy changes aimed at ramping down Walz's executive orders neared completion.
But in the short term, Walz and state health officials said the state needs another 30-day extension of the emergency to continue drawing down federal nutrition assistance funds and to avoid overwhelming the courts if the state's eviction moratorium lifted. The governor's request came as the state reported it was nearing a goal of reaching vaccination of 70% of adults 16 and older by July 1 and as cases and hospitalizations from the illness reached the lowest levels since last spring.
“It is very clear now that we are in the final stages and most of the executive orders, as I have said, will unwind or have unwound or will in the near future,” Walz told the Minnesota Executive Council. “Today is simply reupping the state of emergency so that the status quo of the work that we’re doing continues.”
The peacetime emergency has freed up the governor to implement laws without the approval of the Legislature, irking Republican lawmakers who've said lawmakers should be more involved in deciding the state's plan to combat COVID-19. And under the emergency, Walz has activated the National Guard, put in place testing and vaccination programs, set temporary restrictions on businesses and social gatherings and required masks in certain settings.
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Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state is taking steps toward eradicating the virus, but more needs to be done to boost vaccination numbers and to create an off-ramp for the state's eviction moratorium.
“To continue making the progress we need against COVID-19 we do need to extend the peacetime emergency once again,” Malcolm said. "The pandemic itself won't be over until the World Health Organization declares it ceases to be a threat."
The Minnesota Executive Council on Monday approved the extension and the Minnesota House of Representatives voted down an effort to veto the continuation, effectively allowing it to take effect. Both chambers need to approve the proposal to block an extension of the emergency.
"Because of the vaccines and the actions that we took, we are safe to be here in this room together and that is all the evidence you need that this emergency powers need to end," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said during floor debate.
At the Capitol, dozens of demonstrators gathered with signs that read "Never again," and "More liberty less RINO" in an effort to encourage the end of the peacetime emergency and discourage GOP lawmakers from compromising with Democrats.
Budget talks heat up
Lawmakers returned for a special session Monday to weigh the peacetime emergency extension and to pass a $52 billion state budget. And while they didn't take up votes on the budget bills, legislative leaders said they were hopeful that they could approve a two-year spending plan and avert a state government shutdown.
"I don’t think we’ll be close to June 30th, I expect we'll be done days before that," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, agreed that lawmakers were working toward budget agreements after weeks of closed-door negotiations. Gazelka said he also hoped to hold a vote to end the emergency later in the special session.
"My goal is to be done within ten days. I don't want to be here June 30 still grappling with something," Gazelka said on the Senate floor. "I don't think is good for Minnesota. They want to know that we can get our job done and I believe the Senate will do our part and we’ll just have to wait for the house and the governor to do their part."
The state has a June 30 deadline to finish a budget or force a state government shutdown. And even before a shutdown could start, state agencies were starting to feel the impacts.
"We know that the closer we get to June 30, the more work that is taking place in our state agencies to prepare for a shutdown that we all agree we hope does not happen," Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said. "That is a waste of taxpayer dollars and that should inspire every single one of us to work thoughtfully and efficiently to get our budget done as quickly as possible so that we don't waste money and resources and so we can help people prepare to move on without major disruption."
And lawmakers involved in writing a plan to wind down the state's eviction moratorium said they had reached a deal and would bring the bill for a vote later this week. The governor has said he won't end the state's peacetime emergency without a transition to avoid evicting Minnesotans dealing with the impacts of COVID-19.
"The governor's eviction moratorium saved lives and I think this offramp will help save livelihoods of both renters and landlords," Rep. Michael Howard, D-Richfield, said.