ST. PAUL — Minnesota senators on Wednesday, Feb. 3, advanced a bill that would remove the governor's ability to close down or change school schedules or activities during a state of emergency and allow more businesses to reopen.
The proposals made their first steps in Senate committees, where Republican lawmakers said decisions should be made at the local level with public health guidance in mind. State health officials, along with Walz administration education and economic development leaders, said the governor should retain his emergency powers to allow him to act quickly amid the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergency situations.
And they warned of pulling the governor's option to close schools or change academic schedules in emergency situations could come with unintended consequences.
The conversations came as the state reported that new infections from COVID-19 and deaths from the illness continued to slide downward, and vaccinations against the disease continued to climb. More than 458,000 Minnesotans had received one dose of the vaccine as of Wednesday, according to the state health data.
The bills were among the first brought forward this legislative session in response to the state's peacetime emergency and to Gov. Tim Walz's emergency orders. And they're likely to face a dicey path forward in the divided Legislature.
GOP leaders have expressed support for rolling back Walz's authority and reopening more sectors of the economy. But Democrats, who hold a majority in the Minnesota House of Representatives and the governor's office, have said the governor should retain his authority.
"It puts the decision-making where I think it should be, with the locally elected school boards,” State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said. Nelson penned the proposal to pull governors' authority to shut down schools during an emergency. “There has been great consternation and concern about the closure of our public schools for in-person student learning."
Parents and school board members said local district leaders should determine when schools should be closed due to emergency situations and they said the closure of Minnesota schools in March, and later move to hybrid or distance learning, had posed serious challenges for students and their families.
State health and education officials, meanwhile, pointed to the unique challenges posed by the pandemic and said the governor needed to step in to prevent the community spread of COVID-19.
“Specific demographic populations cannot be walled off or placed in a bubble from a highly infectious virus that is circulating widely in the community,” Assistant Commissioner of Health Dan Huff said. “What happens in our schools spills over to the rest of our community and vice versa.”
The Senate Committee on State Government Finance and Policy and Elections on a 5-3 vote advanced the bill the Senate Education Committee.
In the Senate Committee on Jobs and Economic Growth, members voted 4-3 to push forward a bill to let businesses reopen without capacity limits as long as they put in place protocols to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Restaurant and bar owners, small business groups and others voiced support for the plan and said they could safely open at fuller capacity. Labor union representatives and state health officials voiced concerns about the state too quickly reopening public sectors and again facing a surge of COVID-19 cases.