The Minnesota Legislature’s third special session began and ended on Wednesday, but still managed to pack in some fireworks that will have lasting impacts on the already shaky relationship between Gov. Walz and Republican legislators. In a surprise that Senate DFL leaders called an “ambush” and Gov. Walz called “a petty political move,” the Republican-controlled Senate voted to fire Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink over Gov. Walz’s use of peacetime emergency powers and objections to her performance as commissioner.
Expectations for this special session were low. The need for the special session was again precipitated by Gov. Walz’s extension of the peacetime emergency declaration he first issued on March 13 to help the state deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. State statute only allows the governor to extend an emergency declaration for 30 days at a time and triggers a special session each time to give the Legislature an opportunity to reject the extension.
Because the state is in the midst of a bond sale that requires a pause on any changes to its fiscal situation, the one-day special session was expected to be a short, perfunctory affair in which not much was on the agenda. This fiscal “blackout” period is also what made it impossible for the Legislature to pass a bonding bill—something they have failed repeatedly to do despite reaching agreement on the size and major components of a bill.
Still, CGMC and many others around the state continue to push hard for the Legislature to adopt a bonding bill in September. One of the major sticking points in the bonding bill discussion has been an ultimatum by House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) that his caucus will not vote for a bonding bill unless Gov. Walz relinquishes his emergency powers. This week’s unexpected fireworks signal that Senate Republicans are also gearing up a new, more aggressive approach to pushing back on Gov. Walz’s handling of the pandemic.
As the CGMC and other organizations continue to push for action on the bonding bill in September, this week’s events do not do much to seed the ground for compromise. Senate Democrats contended that they had no advance notice that Commissioner Leppink’s confirmation vote would be on the agenda for Wednesday’s special session. GOP leaders did little to counter those claims, instead choosing to focus on moves Leppink has made during the COVID-19 pandemic they characterized as hostile to businesses.
Walz appointed Leppink as commissioner in early 2019, but her confirmation was not voted on until this week. The Senate has the authority to confirm or deny a Governor’s commissioner appointees, but there is no set time frame in which they must do so. To date, the Senate has only confirmed two of Gov. Walz’s appointees, meaning there are plenty of administration officials who could find themselves in the hot seat. At the conclusion of the day’s events, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-East Gull Lake) indicated that the Senate would soon hold informational hearings on other commissioners “to take a look at some of the things that have been going on.”
Prior to the confirmation vote, the session began on a note of harmony. Both the House and Senate acted to allocate $30 million of the federal CARES Act dollars the state received for coronavirus relief to assist service providers to disabled adults. As they have done repeatedly, the Senate also voted to end Gov. Walz’s peacetime emergency powers, but the powers remain in place because the concurrence of the House is required to terminate them. The House voted 71-61 to allow Gov. Walz to maintain his emergency authority.