Walz seeks guarantee from Senate GOP not to fire health commissioner

Gov. Tim Walz says he's asking Senate Republicans not to fire Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm -- or any of his other agency heads -- before calling a special session planned for September.

At an anti-vaccine rally over the weekend, Senate Human Services chair Jim Abeler -- who previously defended Malcolm -- said she should be fired for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Walz responded Tuesday by saying the comments gave him pause about calling the Legislature back.

"The absurdity and recklessness and, quite honestly, dangerous talk that you would get rid of the state's top health advisor and leader? It makes no sense. So I'm not going to put (Malcolm) in that position," Walz told reporters.

The upcoming session is meant to approve pandemic bonus pay for essential workers, though lawmakers can add more things to their agenda. Walz's most significant power over special sessions comes before they happen because only Minnesota's governor can call lawmakers back for one.

The Senate has the power to hold confirmation votes on commissioners anytime the Legislature is in session. Senate Republicans have confirmed few of Walz's agency heads, leaving the rest in limbo. Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho's status is also uncertain after the Senate held a confirmation hearing but took no vote in July.

The Senate GOP has already fired two Walz commissioners during previous special sessions -- Labor's Nancy Leppink and Commerce's Steve Kelley -- while Pollution Control Commissioner Laura Bishop resigned this summer before the Senate could vote her out.

Malcolm has steered Minnesota's response to the pandemic, which included two mandatory closures of thousands of businesses during previous infection waves. Her agency has also directed the vaccine rollout, which ranks 15th in the nation for getting shots in arms.

She has long been a target of conservative activists upset over policies including the state's mask mandate, which Walz put in effect from July 2020 until this May.

Pandemic pay

Even if the commissioner debate fades away, lawmakers must settle the issue of $250 million in pandemic bonus pay before Walz calls a special session.

Tuesday, a panel tasked with making eligibility recommendations was stuck by the same issues as a month ago: how many people to include, and how big the checks should be.

Legislative Democrats and the Walz administration proposed a maximum of $1,500 checks for a broad group of essential workers who had to report to jobsites during the pandemic. Workers would have to apply, and the money would not be subject to state income tax.

"I think it is awfully hard for us to make a determination that some workers were particularly hard hit and some workers were not," said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who announced the Democrats' proposal Tuesday.

Republicans favor a two-tiered system where long-term care workers and hospital staff that dealt directly with COVID-positive patients would get larger checks and other essential workers would get a smaller payment.

"I’m not saying everybody doesn’t deserve something. I’m just saying, if you’re talking about risk, do you think there’s a higher risk at some occupations?" said state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point.

Housley and Winkler, the panel's co-chairs, both said they want a deal before Monday's deadline. The committee is scheduled to meet again Thursday in hopes of agreeing on a recommendation to the full Legislature.