ST. PAUL — Penalties set under a Minnesota governor's executive orders would be capped at a misdemeanor under a plan advanced Wednesday, Jan. 20, in reaction to some of Gov. Tim Walz's emergency directives.

The Minnesota Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee brought forward and unanimously advanced to the Senate floor a bill that would set a ceiling for executive order violations at a $1,000 fine and 90 jail sentence unless otherwise spelled out in law.

Since Walz declared a state of emergency to address the coronavirus pandemic, he has imposed restrictions on business and social gatherings that come with gross misdemeanor penalties. Gross misdemeanors carry heftier fines than typical misdemeanors. And Republicans on the Senate panel said it should be up to the Legislature to decide what repercussions offenders face for running afoul of the orders.

“This is really a discussion of who has the authority to write statute with the effect of law and the effect of punishment,” the bill's author Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said.

The conversation was the latest instance of GOP lawmakers pushing back on the governor's powers and aiming to take a stronger role in shaping COVID-19 response. And Democrats on the panel argued lawmakers could've done more to help Walz shape the state's response, but committee leaders didn't call hearings on relevant subjects since the Legislature adjourned last spring.

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“The Legislature, at least the Senate, did nothing,” Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, said. “The Legislature handed off the authority to the governor by abdicating its responsibility to meet and confer and discuss those issues, in my judgment.”

Despite the disagreement over the role of the Legislature and of the governor in responding to the pandemic, Democrats voted in support of the bill after committee members removed a provision voicing concerns about Walz's decisions to pen executive orders that carried penalties stiffer than a misdemeanor.

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The proposed change would have to pass the Senate and the House of Representatives before moving to the governor's desk for a signature.

Forty-nine states and the federal government have in place peacetime emergencies that let leaders issue executive orders without legislative signoff. And in Minnesota, the peacetime emergency has allowed the state to quickly scale up testing capacity, activate the Minnesota National Guard and place an eviction on moratoriums since it was first put in place in March.

Walz has also been able to require Minnesotans to stay at home except for when performing essential tasks and temporarily shut down sectors of the economy and social gatherings.

With the Legislature back in regular session, lawmakers could end the peacetime emergency at any time if majorities in both chambers voted to block another month. So far, they've failed to meet that threshold.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com