MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Tim Walz called on lawmakers Tuesday to approve a series of new moves to respond to the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccine and testing requirements for teachers, school staff, and long-term care workers, and measures to relieve strained hospital capacity.
The Democratic governor detailed his proposal in a letter to lawmakers that he released after meeting privately with legislative leaders. He urged lawmakers to approve the measures during a special session that was originally envisioned for last month to approve a $250 million bonus package for frontline workers who risked their lives in the pandemic.
Negotiations on that plan have yet to produce an agreement and missed a Labor Day target for completion. Since then, the governor has proposed that the special session also include drought relief for farmers. But Walz has also insisted that Senate Republicans agree not to use the special session to fire Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, as some senators have threatened.
Walz urged lawmakers to approve a series of waivers and enact other relief to allow hospitals, nursing homes and childcare centers to respond more effectively to the surge in cases caused by the delta variant of the coronavirus. He noted that more Minnesotans are hospitalized for COVID-19 than last spring, and that at the end of last week only two pediatric intensive care beds were available across the entire state.
“The pandemic continues to threaten public health, especially among Minnesotans who cannot yet get vaccinated,” Walz said in a separate statement. “The Legislature needs to address a number of issues to keep our students, teachers, families, workers, and communities safe. I urge them to move quickly to keep our kids in school and to allow our hospitals, nursing homes, and child care facilities to effectively respond to the virus.”
Speaking to reporters at an event where he and Malcolm got flu shots, Walz acknowledged that chances were slim of lawmakers approving his proposed vaccine mandates or any masking requirements. But he said he was more optimistic about his other proposals, which include reinstating or extending temporary waivers of normal capacity and staffing rules.
Walz this summer allowed the peacetime state of emergency he declared at the start of the pandemic to lapse. That declaration gave him sweeping powers to respond to the pandemic, but it was unpopular with Republican lawmakers who accused him of overstepping his authority and cutting legislators out of important policy and spending decisions.
The governor said he doesn’t plan to reinstate the peacetime emergency, but acknowledged he lacks the authority to impose his vaccination and other proposals on his own.
The governor’s pandemic proposals got a cool public reaction from the top Republican in the Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, of Winona, whose support would be critical to any broad deal. Miller issued a statement that did not mention them directly, only the unresolved bonus pay issue. Republicans want larger payments that would go primarily to health care workers and first responders, while Democrats favor spreading the money around to a larger pool of workers and possibly adding more money to the $250 million in available federal aid.
“The growing list of requests from Governor Walz is not productive towards ensuring these dedicated workers receive their bonus pay in a timely manner,” Miller said. “They took the biggest risk and kept us safe during the pandemic, and they deserve meaningful bonus checks.”
But House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said her chamber’s Democratic majority “stands ready to deliver pay for frontline workers, provide drought relief, and assist our state’s health care providers with the challenges they’re experiencing due to the Delta wave. The simple question for Republicans is whether they’re willing to set aside partisan politics for a concise special session that takes care of these matters.”