Recent sessions in the Minnesota State Legislature haven’t been short on last-minute deal-making and chaos down in St. Paul, but 2020 just might take the cake with the coronavirus throwing a wrench in lawmakers’ plans.
In an abbreviated session further complicated by deals made over teleconferences and phone calls — as well as heated debates over responses to COVID-19 and Gov. Tim Walz’s handling of the issue — lawmakers said proceedings were hectic. Major pieces of legislation — such as the 2020 bonding bill — were left on the table for a special session slated on June 12, while state representatives and senators looked on via Zoom meetings, negotiated through masks and slept in their offices as the clock wound down.
While St. Paul gears up to tackle an unprecedented list of major legislation during special session, local lawmakers said the Walz administration hasn’t been cooperating with the state Legislature in a productive manner.
Walz may have good intentions, they said, but that doesn’t justify the governor’s decision to retain his grip on emergency powers, his push to keep closure orders in place longer than his critics would prefer, or his aggressive stance against businesses that violate these closure orders. This has caused deep divisions with Republicans in both chambers, they said.
“In the very beginning of this, I think (Gov. Tim Walz) did a pretty good job right out of the chute with the things that he did, but two weeks into this he probably should have reengaged the Legislature and worked with a co-equal branch of government,” said state Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore. “There’s a lot of mistrust now and hard feelings because he hasn’t done that.”
The Dispatch spoke with local state lawmakers, including Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, as well as state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, and state Reps. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin; Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa; and Poston.
Heintzeman has repeatedly declined to comment other than by email, citing a discomfort with face-to-face or phone interviews and expressed sensitivity with how prior statements were presented in the Dispatch.
Closure orders and lawsuits
While the state of Minnesota is gradually lifting preventative measures after weeks of closure orders, travel restrictions and social distancing protocols, the issue of Walz’s use of emergency powers has been a sore point for Republican lawmakers in the state Legislature. In addition, Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office has launched a lawsuit against businesses for threatening to violate business closure orders.
Republicans widely decried these actions as an abuse of power by both Walz and Ellison, while stating the two continue to enforce directives that micromanage and harm small businesses across the state. In particular, they took aim at Walz’s reluctance to reopen the state over the last few weeks.
Gazelka described the issue as an overreach of authority, with emergency powers vested in Walz and Ellison to enforce misdemeanors, not to drag struggling small businesses through the legal system because they’re trying to make ends meet.
“The Senate does not believe that that authority rests within emergency powers, which spell out misdemeanor powers, and so we are concerned about an overreach of executive branch powers,” Gazelka said. “They've been going after bars and restaurants and we're concerned about what might happen with churches that appear to be moving forward, against the governor declaration, and can't have more than 10 people meeting.”
Ruud was unsparing in her comments on Walz’s leadership during the crisis, stating that Walz has been noncommunicative with Republican lawmakers.
“I've been very disappointed in the governor's leadership. ... I think his leadership has really failed,” Ruud said. “The governor has not listened, one minute of one day, and everything is really no rhyme or reason, random openings and closings.”
In an email, Heintzeman stated decisions in St. Paul largely revolve around Walz and a cloistered group of Democrat-leaning bureaucrats.
“I think the governor sincerely believes he's saving lives, but his own data disagrees with his arbitrary closing and opening of various business models,” Heintzeman’s email stated. “ … Normally, there would be some check and balance between the State Attorney General, Secretary of State, the governor's office and other elected leaders, but in this case the governor's hearing only from Democrat aligned leaders and that has led to an incredibly lopsided approach.”
Lueck said it’s a matter of managing the state properly and allowing small businesses, individuals and municipalities to oversee their own COVID-19 response — something the current administration hasn’t been able to do.
“They're busy trying to micromanage everything. You can't do that level of micromanaging from St. Paul, you have to provide some level of responsibility and accountability,” Lueck said. “It’s that simple.”
Status of small businesses
In terms of small businesses who have been struggling to remain afloat through months of statewide closure, local lawmakers were unified in their opinion the state failed to properly support small businesses, then continued to fail them by extending statewide closure orders much longer than necessary.
This is further complicated by low rates of traffic to businesses after opening. The general populace remains wary of COVID-19, as evidenced by Georgia, which is experiencing consumer traffic at 15% of normal capacity after reopening, according to Walz. At the national level, concerns have been raised that businesses may have difficulties weathering thinner times at the onset until their customer base feels more secure from the coronavirus.
The answer is to reopen and quickly, local Republicans said, which will allow small businesses to enjoy some of the same advantages as big box stores, franchise chains and multinational corporations, who have remained open through the course of the crisis. Funding sources, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, can only get businesses so far, they said, and this looks to be increasingly irrelevant the longer businesses can’t operate at full capacity.
“The fact is, the less we open up, the more resources are not going to be what determines whether they make it,” Gazelka said. “I’m very worried about our small businesses.”
Ruud predicted businesses will face an uphill battle for at least two months as they work to get their feet back under them.
“Our small businesses have been left behind and they didn't get the resources to begin with,” Ruud said. “We have to think it's going to be slow to start. They won't have income for like two months, because that's just how it works. And so they'll be starting in the hole and try to climb out and I don't think that we have supported them.”
Poston — who is active in the restaurant industry — echoed these sentiments and urged the Walz administration to continue opening the state as quickly as possible. Restaurants still face a number of restrictions in terms of capacity and where they can seat customers in a phased reopening that starts June 1.
“The most important thing we can do is ramp this thing up faster than we're doing it,” Poston said. “I don't think there's any science that says we shouldn't be doing that. The quicker we do it, the quicker we're gonna start recovering our economy.”
Lueck said much of the damage has been done and it’s up to the state to allow businesses to stabilize themselves during the crisis.
“When you say support or support that's lacking is very clear, it's lacking in the executive branch,” Lueck said. “You can’t make up for slamming the door shut on these people and scaring the general public by just throwing money at it. You got to open things up and be a little more confident in the general situation of the state's public health.”