ST. PAUL — After several testy letters of correspondence between Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and Republican state Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, the two said a Thursday, Sept. 3 one-on-one meeting went amicably — but it's unclear whether it will result in any deal-making between the two come this month's special legislative session.
The exchange came on the heels of months of heated back-and-forth between Walz and legislative Republicans, who have called his coronavirus peacetime emergency orders an executive overreach, and have pushed for greater legislative control in coronavirus response. Walz maintains that the pandemic remains and emergency, and retaining his emergency powers allows the state to be nimble during an ever-evolving public health and economic crisis. If the country's sole divided Legislature were to take the reigns, he argues, coronavirus bill negotiations could stretch on for too long.
In a Wednesday letter to Gazelka, Walz's chief of staff Chris Schmitter said Gazelka had been "shockingly absent" from discussions with the governor throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
"(O)ur office has offered ample opportunities for legislators to provide feedback on the Administration’s response," Schmitter wrote. "At the same time that you claim the legislature is not involved enough in the process, you neglect to attend many of these critical informational and decision-making meetings."
In a Thursday response letter ahead of the afternoon meeting, Gazelka wrote that he and Walz "have a difference of opinion regarding the definition of ‘legislative involvement’ when it comes to Minnesota’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic."
"Ever since your initial emergency declaration 175 days ago, your definition of legislative involvement has been limited to informational meetings where your administration informs the legislative branch of decisions already made," he wrote.
Within hours of Gazelka's letter, though, Walz emerged from their 45-minute meeting saying the two have had a "good relationship (...) that I value" throughout Walz's last year and a half in the governor's office and Thursday's meeting "reinforced that mutual respect." He chalked up the tensions between the two getting "a little bit heated" amid an election year, and Gazelka said the governor's use of emergency powers has resulted in "a divide between us."
After the meeting, though, it remained unclear what could change. Walz appeared unwilling to drop his emergency powers, and Gazelka reiterated his disagreement with their use. One major piece of legislation lawmakers have yet to move through is a capital infrastructure bonding bill, but the beef with that wasn't between Gazelka and Walz, but Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and Democrats.
A bonding bill requires a two-thirds majority to pass in the House, a greater majority than Democrats hold in the House. So despite any agreement between the Democratic House and Republican Senate's majority leaders, Daudt's caucus has the power to shut it down.
During August's special session, Senate Republicans voted to oust Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink, widening a schism between them and Walz. Later in August, Republicans held virtual hearings to discuss the job performance of two other Walz-appointed cabinet members, Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley and Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop, signalling another potential ousting come September's special session.
Gazelka and Walz told reporters after Thursday's meeting that they discussed together those prospects, but declined to provide details. Gazelka said his caucus has "not decided one way or the other" whether they will remove Kelley or Bishop. Walz made a public plea to spare the cabinet members' jobs, saying he "need(s) them in the middle of all this," and removing cabinet members makes it more difficult to coordinate state response to the pandemic.