Senate Republicans and DFL Governor Tim Walz on Wednesday described starkly contrasting approaches to dealing with the ongoing pandemic, creating a prolonged legislative deadlock as the governor calls on lawmakers to act on a series of mitigation measures. COVID-19.
Walz is calling for mandatory vaccinations for long-term care workers, teachers and other school staff, among other recommendations he outlined on Tuesday afternoon. But he is limited in his authority to act alone. In July, he reached a compromise with lawmakers to end his declaration of peacetime emergency, relinquishing his emergency powers.
Senate Republicans, who have long opposed pandemic restrictions and mandates, took advantage of a social services committee hearing Wednesday to criticize officials in the Walz administration for their deployment of a mandate of vaccine for government officials. They also seemed cold to Walz’s pandemic demands, which also include waivers to deal with labor shortages in hospitals and nursing homes.
The apparent stalemate comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remain stubbornly high, especially in areas with low vaccination rates.
The conflict is likely to deepen the stalemate in the divided legislature, which is trying to come to an agreement on how to distribute $ 250 million in pandemic bonuses for some 667,000 essential employees who have worked despite the risk of catching the virus.
Republicans want to give a bigger check to a smaller pool of employees, including healthcare, long-term care, personal care assistants and prison guards, while Democrats say the total amount should be larger so that a larger pool of workers – such as janitors, bus drivers and meat processors – can be included.
In addition to COVID-19 mitigation policies, Walz wants assurance that the GOP majority Senate will not remove Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm in a special legislative session. New Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller has said no such guarantees are forthcoming. Drought relief for farmers is also on the table.
Without a deal soon, lawmakers and Walz face the prospect of election year negotiations, with the DFL governor’s first term due for re-election in a year when all 201 legislative seats will also be in place.
Walz visited a school in Maplewood on Wednesday to learn about mitigation strategies school officials are undertaking to allow students to attend classes in person. Kelly Ayd, health services supervisor for Independent School District 622, showed Walz the rapid COVID-19 tests available for students with symptoms.
Walz recently ordered that the more than 36,000 state officials present proof of vaccination or provide regular proof of testing to return to workplaces. More than 10,000 workers are working remotely, leaving around 25,000 workers subject to the new policy.
Kristin Batson, assistant commissioner of management and budget for Minnesota, said that 523 state employees – about 2% of those affected – had not submitted proof of vaccination or consented to testing.
State Senator Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chairman of the Senate Finance and Policy Committee on Social Service Reform and long-time vaccine skeptic, invited some opposing state employees to the mandate to testify during the Senate hearing on Wednesday.
Abeler said he spoke with 40 state government employees who oppose the new workforce rule.
Liz Schwanke, a state worker who helps provide community services, said she opposed testing and vaccination rules over health confidentiality concerns. “Testing should be done at all levels (regardless of vaccination status),” she said,
Abeler said the committee would not debate the underlying merits of vaccination and said he believed workers’ individual rights should be protected. “The governor has unequal bargaining power on this matter,” he said.
Schwanke and others have warned that the vaccination rule could kick out state employees, as well as workers in long-term care facilities who do not wish to be vaccinated.
Walz told reporters on Wednesday that while he was concerned about attrition due to politics, he compared it to the indoor smoking ban.
“I guess we lost workers when we said you can’t smoke in the building anymore,” he said. “It’s about protecting others.”
He also said objections to regular testing should be weighed against the risk of hospitalization. “It’s a reasonable request,” he said.