GOP senators signal they may fire some Walz Cabinet members
By STEVE KARNOWSKI Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Republicans who control the Minnesota Senate signaled Friday that they may fire one or more of Democratic Gov. Tim Walz’s Cabinet commissioners, injecting drama into a special session that many lawmakers thought was essentially over.
GOP Sen. Michelle Benson, of Ham Lake, wouldn’t name the commissioners who might be in danger when pressed by Democratic senators. But she said Republicans plan to “remain vigilant and attentive to the governor’s appointments” when the Senate reconvenes Tuesday. She didn’t say how long the Senate might remain in special session.
That drew an angry response from the few Democratic senators present for what most expected to a brief, routine meeting. They said they were upset by the lack of transparency.
“Is there some vendettas here against the governor’s commissioners that you want to fire some of them, at this point? When we’ve just passed the budget, and people have a lot of work to do to implement what the Legislature has asked them to do? And now you’re going to fire some who are at the helm, who have worked hard during COVID to do the job that they were hired to do?” Democratic Sen. Sandy Pappas, of St. Paul, asked Benson. “Who is it that you’re upset with, and what do you plan do? I think you should just put your cards on the table.”
Benson said GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, had spoken with Walz “about appointments” but gave no details.
Walz issued a statement saying Senate Republicans should have acted back when he first appointed his commissioners and that they should not claim pay for extending the special session.
“Because Senate Republicans put this work off for two years and are choosing to conduct their work in overtime, I am calling on them to forgo the thousands of taxpayer dollars they take each day in per diem, and I expect that they will conduct their work expediently, professionally, and free of any political theater,” the governor said.
Some commissioners who have taken positions at odds with Republicans have included Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop. Republicans have been critical of the how the Walz administration has fought the COVID-19 pandemic, and they lost an effort to force the MPCA to scuttle the administration’s “clean car” plan to encourage drivers to switch to electric vehicles.
However, Benson told Minnesota Public Radio afterward that Malcolm is not a target. “It’s not appropriate to undermine a commissioner in the middle of a pandemic,” Benson said. But she wouldn’t say how many commissioners might face removal or name them. She also indicated that senators might scrutinize some appointments below the cabinet level.
Senate committees on Friday posted confirmation hearings for Tuesday on Bishop; Sarah Strommen, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, Jennifer Ho, commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency; Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board; Aaron Vande Linde, director of the Minnesota Office of School Trust Lands; and Dean Compart as a member of the Board of Animal Health.
The Senate removed two commissioners during special sessions last summer over disputes with the administration — Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley and Labor and Industry Commissioner Peggy Leppink. It has confirmed only three Walz Cabinet members — Agriculture Commissioner Thom Peterson, Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson and Mediation Services Commissioner Janet Johnson. Most other commissioners have held their jobs since the governor took office in 2019. The Senate has held off on confirming or rejecting them in order to retain leverage.
The main work of the special session was finishing a $52 billion state government budget for the next two years. The House adjourned early Thursday and can’t reconvene it. But the Senate merely recessed to allow what Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, billed as a “trust but verify” review to ensure that Walz signed all the bills from the special session and that nothing went wrong.
So only six senators were on the floor Friday. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, of Woodbury, demanded a vote on whether to adjourn, which would have blocked Republicans from moving against the commissioners, but it failed 35-29, with most senators voting remotely.