ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Senate on Friday, Sept. 11, voted to terminate a Walz-appointed commissioner following concerns that the agency head "threw a wrench" into the advancement of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline project.
It's the second commissioner ousting at the hands of the Republican-led Senate this year and it came as Gov. Tim Walz extended — and the Legislature failed to block — another 30-day extension of Minnesota's peacetime emergency for the coronavirus pandemic.
Senate Republicans argued that they'd reached out to Walz on several occasions to raise concerns about Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley's lack of experience on insurance issues. Their worries were heightened last month after the commerce department appealed a decision granting a certificate of need for the Line 3 project.
The Senate on a 33-31 voted to reject Kelley's confirmation, effectively terminating the agency leader.
“It wasn’t just strike one, it wasn’t just strike two, it was strike three," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said. "This commissioner is not working out."
Republicans, with the exception of Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester, voted to reject the confirmation, and Democrats, with the exception of Sens. Tom Bakk, of Cook, and Dave Tomassoni, of Chisholm, voted to support it. A handful of senators opted not to vote.
Walz and Democrats said the move during an already politically polarized special legislative session "victimizes" the commissioner over unrelated disagreements in how the state ought to respond to the pandemic. The governor told MPR News that the possibility of senators terminating Kelley marked “a pretty sad chapter in Minnesota’s history.”
"Now we’re going to lose a very qualified commissioner of commerce and I’m not hearing anything that would normally disqualify him," Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville, said. "Holding this like an ax over somebody’s head for three years is not what the process entails."
Peacetime emergency again extended
For the fourth time this year, Walz issued a monthlong extension of the state's peacetime emergency to address the pandemic and called lawmakers back to the Capitol to weigh terminating the emergency.
The first-term DFL governor argued the state continues to face an emergency in the COVID-19 pandemic and should have the option to quickly respond to address the illness.
“My top priority remains the health and safety of Minnesotans,” Walz said in a news release. “The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and the next stages of this virus continue to threaten our state. Today we extend our peacetime emergency, giving Minnesota the tools to quickly respond to this rapidly-evolving virus as we approach the fall and winter.”
The Minnesota Senate on a 36-31 vote sought to terminate the peacetime emergency while the House of Representatives voted against taking up a resolution to end the governor's emergency powers. Both chambers needed to vote against the extension to block it.
Under the peacetime emergency, Walz has put a freeze on evictions, set up COVID-19 testing partnerships between the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic that boosted the state's testing capacity and deployed the Minnesota National Guard to stockpile scarce personal protective equipment. Walz also temporarily closed down schools, businesses and houses of worship and set in place a mask mandate. While many schools, businesses and churches have been allowed to reopen, they now face new constraints to occupancy and COVID-19 mitigation requirements.
Democrats in the Legislature have agreed that Walz should continue to wield the emergency powers to allow him to act more quickly than the Legislature can in containing the illness while Republicans said the emergency phase of the pandemic is over and lawmakers should have a stronger say in how the state responds moving forward.
“We are not in an emergency. 9/11 was an emergency, the beginnings of COVID-19 were an emergency … We need to fight it together and with emergency powers, the governor does it by himself without the legislative branch," Gazelka said. "This is not about the virus not being serious, it’s that we need to be working with the governor, not just being told what’s going to happen."
The Minnesota Department of Health on Friday reported that 484 more Minnesotans had tested positive from the illness and 13 more had died from COVID-19 and its complications, bringing the total number to perish from the disease to 1,897.
And Democrats at the Capitol said the threat of COVID-19 remained a substantial threat in Minnesota and they called on Republicans to take the issue seriously.
"Tragically, we have lost more than 1,900 Minnesotans and more than 191,000 Americans. That's 191,000 mothers, fathers, grandfathers, daughters, sons, uncles and aunts, 191,000 lives cut short because our nation has failed to truly address this crisis," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said. "With COVID we have lost too many and we can take action to avoid losing more and we must. The lives we are losing to COVID matter, are worth saving and we can make a difference."
In an email apparently intended for his GOP colleagues Friday, Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, wrote, "a friendly, reminder (as discussed in caucus) to stay on message IF you speak today- COVID issues are not our winning message. PUBLIC SAFETY is our ticket to the majority, let’s win with that."
The email was sent to Democratic members of the House and quickly shared and criticized by DFL leaders.
Bonding bill could come up this month
Hortman and Gazelka said conversations around a jobs and projects bill remain ongoing but lawmakers wouldn't be able to take up a proposal until later this month due to a "quiet period" forced by an August bond sale. Hortman said she was optimistic that the Legislature could pass a bonding bill late in September.
"I've suggested to Minority Leader (Kurt) Daudt that we plan a negotiation schedule that would bring us back on the 21st so that we would be acting on the earliest date possible," Hortman said.