The Minnesota Legislature convened this afternoon for its sixth special session of 2020. Like the five that came before it, this special session was triggered by the latest 30-day extension of Gov. Walz’s peacetime emergency declaration, under which he has issued numerous executive orders related to the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
Because the Legislature finally passed a bonding bill in October and is unlikely to take up major state budget items until the 2021 regular session in January, there was not much expected for the day’s agenda. That is, until whispers began late on Wednesday night that a shake-up in the Senate’s leadership could be in the works. 
 
Senate President shake-up
 
When the Senate convened on Thursday, Republicans quickly nominated Sen. David Tomassoni, a DFLer from Chisholm, to replace Sen. Jeremy Miller, a Republican from Winona, as Senate President for the remainder of the 2020 legislative term. The full Senate then voted on the nomination, and Sen. Tomassoni was elected to the Senate presidency by a vote of 63-4.
 
Why did the Senate Republicans nominate a DFLer to replace one of their own? It all comes down to the Republicans’ fear that events at the national level could threaten their narrow State Senate majority. 
 
Here are the basics: State Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, are concerned that President-elect Joe Biden will appoint current U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar to a position in his cabinet. This would vacate her seat in the U.S. Senate and give Gov. Walz the opportunity to appoint her successor. If Gov. Walz were to appoint his current Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan to the Senate, the State Constitution provides that the President of the Senate becomes Lieutenant Governor. If Sen. Miller were forced to vacate his seat as Senate President to take the Lieutenant Governor position, it would have two consequences. First, until a special election can be held it would throw the Senate into a 33-33 tie, temporarily crippling the body during a pivotal 2021 session. Second, a special election for Miller’s seat could be competitive, and would determine control of the Senate. While Sen. Miller won re-election by a comfortable margin, Biden also carried the district in the presidential race. With Republicans projected to hold just a one-seat majority in 2021, a special election would come with incredibly high stakes and would determine control of the Legislature. 
 
Close political observers will recall that a similar set of circumstances resulted in Republican Michelle Fischbach (then a state senator) serving as Lieutenant Governor under Gov. Dayton at the end of his term in 2018, after Gov. Dayton appointed then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Al Franken.
 
If Republican senators actually want to avoid putting their majority at risk in this way, they will need to appoint a DFL Senate President again at the beginning of the 2021 session, at least until it becomes clear whether Klobuchar will remain in the U.S. Senate. If you think all of this shuffling around sounds silly, you might be right, but it would take a constitutional amendment to change the line of succession, so we are stuck with these rules for the time being.
 
Emergency Powers
 
Notably, Sen. Gazelka made clear early in the day that the Senate would not take a vote to terminate Gov. Walz’s peacetime emergency declaration. To date, the Senate has voted five times since June to terminate the Governor’s peacetime emergency declaration, but adjourned the special session on Thursday without taking up the issue. 
 
In the House, Republicans brought forward a proposal to tweak the Governor’s peacetime authority by giving the Legislature the ability to terminate any orders or rules promulgated by the Governor directing a specific response during a peacetime emergency. Currently, the Legislature only has the authority to exercise the blunt instrument of completely terminating a peacetime emergency declaration. Republicans argued this approach was more narrowly tailored to give the Legislature a say in emergency response. In the end, the Republicans’ proposal failed in the House on vote of 73-60.