Walz seeks vaccine mandate for school staff, masking in schools. Here's why it's a long shot

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz called on state lawmakers to create a vaccine mandate for school staff and nursing home workers while requiring masks in schools, though the Democratic governor acknowledged the ideas will go nowhere with legislative Republicans.

Walz made the requests in a letter to legislative leaders after a Tuesday afternoon meeting with four top lawmakers in his state Capitol office, the first such meeting in weeks. At issue was a potential fall special session to approve COVID-19 pandemic bonus pay for frontline workers, farm drought relief, and pandemic response efforts.

"I recognize there's a slim chance they will do those things," Walz said of potential vaccine and masking requirements. "It has become a litmus test for purity for Republican legislators."

The first-term governor said he made the request to lawmakers because he lacks the legal power to impose a vaccine or testing requirement on teachers, school staff and long-term care workers by executive order. He said the request was not an ultimatum and said he had no plans to call a new state of emergency over the pandemic. Walz held emergency powers for 15 months until the Legislature ended the authority in June.

Walz has the authority to call lawmakers back for a special session. But several unrelated issues are keeping him from doing so.

First, the divided Legislature has been unable to settle on a plan to distribute $250 million in bonus pay to frontline workers. There's no deal on which workers to include -- or how big the checks should be.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm's job status is also uncertain. Republicans control the Senate, which has confirmation power over Walz's commissioners, and have not guaranteed the governor that Malcolm is safe. Walz has made the issue a condition of calling a special session. The two received their flu shots at a community clinic in St. Paul before talking with reporters.

Walz added the vaccine and masking policies into the mix Tuesday. He is also calling on lawmakers to make a series of technical changes aimed at improving health care systems' response to the virus. As of this week, 847 Minnesotans are hospitalized with COVID-19, the most since late 2020.

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, the top Republican lawmaker in Tuesday's negotiations, did not appear receptive of Walz's new requests.

"I’m confident we can reach an agreement on the bonus pay for frontline workers," Miller, R-Winona, said in an email. "The growing list of requests from Gov. Walz is not productive towards ensuring these dedicated workers receive their bonus pay in a timely manner."

House Speaker Melissa Hortman said her DFL caucus wants to address frontline worker pay, drought relief and assisting health care providers. She was critical of Senate Republicans for not keeping Malcolm on the hot seat.

"The simple question for Republicans is whether they're willing to set aside partisan politics for a concise special session that takes care of these matters," said Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.

Walz said he told Republicans during Tuesday's meeting that Malcolm had his "unwavering support." He said he sought a timeline from lawmakers for reaching deals, but the parties did not reach an agreement.