‘We're all grownups:' Minnesota officials defend keeping government open despite cold

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Most of Minnesota state government remained open Wednesday despite the extreme cold, drawing concerns from one Republican state lawmaker that Minnesotans were being needlessly put in danger.

Gov. Tim Walz’s administration decided to keep state offices open, even as Wisconsin’s governor shuttered many state buildings, businesses closed, and the U.S. Postal Services suspended service for the day.

The Minnesota Senate canceled its committee hearings Wednesday citing safety concerns, but the House forged ahead with a nearly full slate of meetings.

“Why would we put those workers at risk? Why would we put the troopers that have to respond if they have an accident, the tow truck drivers that have to respond if they have an accident, why are we putting them at risk unnecessarily?” state Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, said in an interview. “We can shut down for one day. The world won’t end.”

Walz defended his decision to keep the government open, saying that he directed state agencies to decide what work would be unsafe because of the weather.

“We were obviously monitoring every two hours. And I think at this point in time, we have the right crews on, we’re doing the state’s work, we’re getting things done,” Walz told reporters in St. Paul.

A spokesman for the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, a union that represents many state workers, said Wednesday afternoon that there were discussions going on at the state agencies about the weather.

“I think most agencies have been flexible in allowing for vacation time use in these frigid temperatures. So, we have actually not heard anything from our members,” said Richard Kolodziejski, the spokesman.

At the Capitol

At the Minnesota Senate Building, a sign near the front door reminded the public that all committee hearings had been scuttled because of the cold. Hearing rooms were empty Wednesday afternoon.

But in the House, most meetings continued as scheduled. One meeting, to be held at the Stillwater state prison, was postponed by the state Corrections department commissioner because staffers were driving from long distances to secure the facility during the hearing.

O’Neill said her concerns increased when a House staffer got into a car crash on Interstate 94 while driving home from the Capitol on Tuesday night. A dispatcher said the Minnesota State Patrol couldn’t arrive on scene for 90 minutes, which could’ve caused a dangerous situation if the cars involved weren’t operable, O’Neill said.

“Why are we putting everybody at risk if they have an accident along the way, we’re talking about life-threatening dangerous cold?” she said.

O’Neill said she raised concerns with Democratic House committee chairmen. House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt reached out about possible cancelations, but that she had not heard from other members, staff or the public.

“The vast majority of Minnesotans are going to work today, and they would expect their Legislature to go to work today as well,” Hortman said in an interview.

Hortman said House leaders determined they could not afford to lose a day of the legislative calendar. She said two state prison guards she met with Tuesday on a separate issue told her that lawmakers should continue with their scheduled work.

“This is the weather that we have in Minnesota in the winter,” Hortman said. “Here at the Legislature, we’ll all grownups. We work inside.