Walz's COVID powers extended, Senate GOP looks to end them

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz will keep his emergency powers to manage the COVID-19 pandemic for at least another 30 days.

Walz said the extension, which was approved by the Minnesota Executive Council on Monday morning, was necessary as health officials raised new concerns about a more transmissible virus variant circulating in two dozen counties. He has so far used his emergency authority to restrict businesses and schools, impose a mask mandate, and ban evictions.

The governor has held his emergency authority for more than a year, angering Republicans. Monday, the GOP-controlled Senate voted 38-29 to make it easier to end Walz's authority.

"I believe the governor has been abusing his emergency powers," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told reporters.

The GOP proposal would require a vote of either the House or Senate to end a governor's peacetime emergency declaration. That would give Republicans who control the Senate veto power over Walz's authority.

Currently, both chambers must agree before Walz would be stripped of his powers. Over the past year, the DFL-controlled House has repeatedly voted to uphold the governor's emergency.

Walz argues that the Legislature is not set up to move at the speed necessary to manage a pandemic. Monday, he toured a mass vaccination site at the Mall of America, and has said some of the state's vaccination sites have been set up on less than 96 hours' notice.

"I’ve accepted responsibility through this whole thing to make decisions that aren’t real popular," Walz told reporters. "But I’m absolutely convinced the numbers show they were effective."

Minnesota has reported 6,747 coronavirus-related deaths since March 2020. Many of them came during a spike in cases last fall that peaked around Thanksgiving, though cases and deaths have plummeted since then, and Walz has allowed some economic restrictions to lapse.

Yet on Monday, health officials sounded alarms about the more transmissible UK variant, which they said had spread to 25 counties statewide. In Carver County, an outbreak is blamed on youth sports gatherings, and health officials said it has now spread into the community. Everyone in the county should get tested, they said.

Walz has said his administration would be hamstrung if his powers ended without replacements for several of his mandates, including the eviction moratorium. Senate Republicans have proposed phasing out the moratorium over 75 days.

As many as 100,000 Minnesota renters are behind on their payments and would owe $200 million if the eviction ban ended today, said Jill Mazullo, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.

Republicans said the Legislature can act quickly in the face of emergencies, pointing to fast-tracked bills in the early days of the pandemic to free up funding for the state Health Department.

"We can move quickly when we need to, but there have to be limits on executive power," said state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. "We are a year into this fight. We will be much more effective if we can be more collaborative (with the governor)."

But Democrats said it would be reckless to end Walz's emergency authority now, with the pandemic ongoing.

"It's really not about a concrete plan, actionable steps that we want to take. It's about getting rid of it, end it now, and we'll see what happens," Senate Democratic Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said.