Who's next? Senate Republicans say 'stay tuned' on firing more Walz commissioners

The day after Senate Republicans suddenly fired Minnesota's top workplace safety regulator, a GOP aide said "stay tuned" about their next target in a standoff that is unlike any in recent Minnesota history.

The Republican-controlled Senate swiftly ousted Minnesota Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink on Wednesday evening in a 34-32 vote. All Democrats voted no and accused Republicans of trying to extort concessions from Walz or they'd keep picking off his cabinet members.

Republicans said Leppink, who oversees the state's regulations and worker-protection laws, was hostile to businesses. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the GOP was unhappy with at least three other commissioners: economic development's Steve Grove, Pollution Control's Laura Bishop, and Management and Budget head Myron Frans, who announced Wednesday he was leaving state government for a job at the University of Minnesota.

"This isn’t the only commissioner frankly that we’re frustrated with," Gazelka said in a tense Senate floor session before the vote.

Who's next?

Walz has 24 cabinet members, and the Senate has only voted to confirm two of them. The rest are in a tenuous spot, knowing Republicans hold their confirmations in their back pocket. Walz appointed Leppink in February 2019 but the Senate GOP held up her confirmation for 18 months until Wednesday's vote.

"Is this extortion?" said Senate Democratic Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury. "Unless the governor does certain things, they’re going to threaten to take out another really important leader in his team and people who are doing the work for people of Minnesota? That's not OK."

Republicans have unsuccessfully tried three times to end Walz's emergency powers over the coronavirus pandemic. They hold little legislative power over the emergency because the DFL-controlled House favors keeping Walz in charge of the state's pandemic response.

Gazelka said Republicans planned to hold hearings on other commissioners' performance.

When asked for clarification on who would be the next target, a Senate GOP spokeswoman, Rachel Aplikowski, said in an email that committee chairmen "are working on setting up hearings. Stay tuned!"

Republicans can hold informational hearings at any time. But they can only vote to fire a commissioner during a legislative session. Walz would have to call another special session in mid-September if he extends his emergency powers again.

Rare move

Rejecting a cabinet commissioner is a rare move in Minnesota.

The last time it happened was 2008, when the Democratic-led Senate rejected Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's transportation commissioner, Carol Molnau.

This year, Republicans have expressed frustration over Pollution Control's Bishop and Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley for their roles in delaying the Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota.

Commerce has sued over the project, and the case is pending in court. Meanwhile, Bishop has the power to approve or deny a regulatory permit later this year.

Line 3 supporters gathered at the Capitol on Thursday with giant replica pipes and thousands of signatures to pressure Walz's administration to let the project move forward. But when asked if the Senate should target the commissioners over the delays, they shied away from answering.

"You know, that’s a whole other issue," state Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, finally said after several awkward seconds when no one approached the microphone. "I think what we’re here today is to try to present a positive message about Line 3 and how we can get this done."

Walz said he expected Senate Republicans would use their confirmation powers to pick apart his appointees.

"There will be a reckoning on this," Walz told reporters in a hastily arranged news conference Wednesday evening. He said he could not legally reappoint Leppink -- as some suggested he should -- and would instead find her replacement.