ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz this week announced the rollback of most of the state's executive orders related to COVID-19, including the end of Minnesota's mask mandate by July 1.
The long-awaited announcement stirred frustrations at the Legislature as Republicans had pressed the governor for an end to the state's peacetime emergency. And the news that the emergency, along with some of Walz's executive orders, would remain prompted concerns about getting a budget agreement passed on time.
With a little more than a week left in the legislative session, the first-term governor announced that capacity limits at outdoor events would end Friday, May 7, and masks wouldn't be required in those settings unless more than 500 people were in attendance. Then starting May 28, capacity restrictions at restaurants, bars and places of public accommodation would lift, along with social distancing requirements.
And when the state reached the threshold of vaccinating 70% of Minnesotans ages 16 and older or on July 1, the state would end its mask mandate.
"This is striking that balance between keeping folks safe, well-being and economics," Walz told reporters. "We think that by the 28th of May, that strikes well."
The governor told reporters that he planned to extend Minnesota's peacetime emergency next week and to keep in place executive orders that prevent price gouging, set a moratorium on evictions and put in place structures for COVID-19 vaccinations and testing.
The news irked Republicans who said it was too little too late. And GOP leaders at the Capitol said Walz should more seriously consider their requests to end the restrictions and mask mandate if state officials are to pass a budget.
"It is true that I had a number of conversations with the governor but frankly not one thing that I recommended was adopted," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Thursday on the Senate floor.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the state was making strong progress on getting people vaccinated and keeping COVID-19 cases down, "but the Governor insists on holding on to powers he doesn’t need — it's time to open up and end the emergency powers."
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, applauded Walz for his leadership during the pandemic and said the rollback on restrictions would help transition Minnesotans back to normal while still limiting the spread of COVID-19.
“From the start, Republican politicians told Americans COVID-19 was ‘just the flu’ and Donald Trump told us it would go away ‘like a miracle,'" House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said in a news release. "Democrats are defeating COVID because we have taken a public health approach informed by scientists, not armchair epidemiologists.”
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Republicans hold a majority in the Minnesota Senate and could help determine what makes it into a two-year state budget and what gets set aside. And Gazelka has said he was prepared to pass a "lights-on" budget, keeping state spending consistent with current levels, if Walz and House Democrats failed to take seriously Republican priorities.
"If the governor will work with us on some of the mandates I've highlighted here, we'll get done, we'll find a way to finish and if we can use federal stimulus money, that will make it a lot easier for all of us," Gazelka said.
The governor's emergency powers for months have come under fire from Republicans. And they've prompted partisan disagreements at the Statehouse. But so far, GOP efforts to end the emergency powers and the governor's authority to issue them have fallen short.
Lawmakers have also split over the best plan for funding state priorities like schools, public safety and health care over the next two years. Republicans have pushed for using one-time state surplus money and federal aid dollars to pay for new spending, while Democrats have said the state has significant needs that require ongoing funding and they've proposed a new tax on top wage-earners.
The legislative session is scheduled to end May 17, but lawmakers might need to go into overtime to get a deal done if they can't finish by then. If they can't compromise by June 30, the state could face a government shutdown.
In more than a dozen conference committees, lawmakers this week aimed to hammer out differences between House and Senate budget bills ahead of their deadline but significant divides remained. And behind the scenes, legislative leaders traded offers laying out top-line priorities and tentative amounts that should be spent on each area.
Budget deal over barbecue?
After a year of Zoom hearings and negotiations by telephone, Walz on Thursday said he hoped to convene lawmakers at the governor's residence for a barbecue.
Typically legislative leaders get together for the governor's fishing opener to talk shop during the last weekend of the legislative session, but the governor said a scheduling conflict would prevent Gazelka from attending. The 2021 fishing opener is May 13-15 in Otter Tail County.
Fewer in-person interactions had ramped up partisan rhetoric, the governor said, and he hoped sitting together could help lawmakers get on the same page about a budget.
"The attacks become more personal because we're less in person, which really ratchets it down. When you're sitting in a room with someone looking at them, it's much better," Walz said. "I will invite them, we'll get this done."