Debate over Walz's COVID powers adds last-minute twist to budget talks

Republicans who control the Minnesota Senate moved to end Gov. Tim Walz's COVID-19 emergency powers immediately Friday, adding a twist to budget negotiations just ahead of a July 1 government shutdown.

The move pushed the state government budget bill, which funds several state agencies, into further negotiations with the House. An economic development bill is also held up after the House added a refinery safety provision.

Lawmakers managed to send just one bill to Walz's desk Friday: the environment budget, which prevents state parks and the Minnesota Zoo from shutting down next week.

The emergency powers debate flared suddenly Friday afternoon. At a hastily scheduled news conference minutes before the Senate went into session Friday, Walz told reporters that he would end his powers by Aug. 1 and invited lawmakers to send him legislation to do so.

"We talked to (lawmakers) about it, showed it to them, and said if you want to codify that, go right ahead -- meaning it’s not just the governor saying he’s going to do this, it’s in law that Aug. 1 is when this buttons up," Walz said.

Minutes later, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka called his own news conference to say Walz's timeline wasn't quick enough.

"I respect that the governor has put out Aug. 1, but we’re saying it’s now," said Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.

Republicans tacked the amendment onto the state government budget bill. The amendment also reduces fines for businesses that flaunted Minnesota's shutdown orders during the pandemic to $1,000 from $10,000 in some cases.

The amendment passed, 37-30. The measure is headed for negotiation with Democrats who control the House, because both chambers must agree before the powers end, and the amendment was not agreed to ahead of time. The House DFL has consistently blocked moves to end the emergency.

The issue has been politically controversial ever since Walz declared a peacetime emergency in March 2020 and extended them every month since.

Refinery safety requirement

An hour later, House Democrats made their own change that will require more negotiation by adding to the jobs and economic budget bill a requirement that oil refineries only use contractors that have apprentice-trained workers.

It's the same amendment that the Senate attached to the bill last week before Republicans removed it and blocked the DFL's attempt to add it back.

Police deal 'inches away'

Once place where Walz and Gazelka's comments lined up Friday? Police accountability.

Both said they were confident that a deal would be announced soon, allowing Minnesota to avoid likely legal drama for keeping state prisons open past July 1 even without authorized funding.

"That is absolutely not necessary," Walz said. "There’s no reason we would ever go there and now as I stand here today, I’m absolutely certain they’re going to finish this thing and we’ll put it to bed."

Gazelka echoed the confident tone.

"Public safety is inches away from a deal. It will be a deal," he told reporters.