As Walz mulls mask mandate, lawmakers split over his virus-fighting powers

Minnesota lawmakers clashed Monday over Gov. Tim Walz's emergency powers to fight the coronavirus pandemic, temporarily pushing other key issues -- like police accountability and funding for construction projects -- to the back burner.

As Walz considers whether to require Minnesotans to wear a mask in public to slow the spread of coronavirus, the issue became the latest flash point for lawmakers as they started a new special session Monday.

In its first move of the special session, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 36-31 to end Walz's emergency powers. A single Democrat, state Sen. Kent Eken of Twin Valley, voted with Republicans.

"We do not think the governor should continue the emergency powers. The emergency part of the pandemic is over," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told reporters at a morning news conference.

Nevertheless, Walz's emergency powers are almost certain to continue. 

Ending them requires votes in both the House and the Senate. Democrats who control the House support Walz's efforts amid a surge in virus cases in several U.S. states and a climbing infection rate in Minnesota.

"We believe that it’s important for the emergency to continue. The pandemic is concerning," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, told reporters.

The House broke Monday afternoon without taking up a resolution similar to the one in the Senate. 

Walz could use his emergency powers to impose a statewide mask mandate. His health commissioner said Monday that the governor has asked for data on the effectiveness of mask mandates. Several Minnesota cities, including Minneapolis, require masks in restaurants and other indoor spaces.

During Monday's floor debate, some GOP senators referred to Walz's as an "emperor" or "dictator" during the use of his emergency powers.

"We’re not going to get through this by having someone serve as an emperor of Minnesota," said state Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska.

"I’ve heard dictator. I’ve heard tyrant. I’ve heard emperor," countered state Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. "I know Tim Walz and I don’t think he’s any of those things."

Mask-wearing has become a political issue around Minnesota and the country. Many Republican lawmakers routinely do not wear one at the Capitol, while most Democrats do.

"The viruses can go right through (a mask)," said state Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. "You can’t push a log thru a chain link fence but mosquitoes can fly through that."

Senate Democrats urged their GOP colleagues to move on to other issues, including police accountability legislation in the wake of George Floyd's death. Floyd, a Black man, was killed May 25 when a now-fired Minneapolis police officer held him to the ground for several minutes by putting his knee on Floyd's neck.

Lawmakers adjourned their first special session in June without any action on police accountability, and they have not announced any agreements on the issue since then.