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Walz gets pushback on COVID, Chauvin trial plans

By Brian Bakst, Minnesota Public Radio News

DFL Gov. Tim Walz and top Republican lawmakers are at odds over their approaches on two pressing matters: COVID-19 and public safety planning for the trials around George Floyd’s death.

Tim Walz

Friction between Walz and Republicans who are in charge of the Minnesota Senate isn’t new, but the disagreements are especially apparent in the two areas with political potency.

Walz is more than halfway into a term that will be marked by the pandemic and the fallout from Floyd’s killing. He’ll be judged on how he handled them should he run again, which looks likely.

If more people lose patience with his coronavirus response or if there’s another bout of riots, that’s a big problem for the governor. Both he and his rivals know that.

“I’m starting to see a pattern here: If I end up having to do it myself and it works out well, everybody is happy that they were part of that,” Walz said in almost offhand fashion last week when discussing a public safety proposal “If it doesn’t work out well — well, the governor did it because he didn’t include us.”

Walz emergency powers

Walz still has his emergency powers in place related to COVID-19 and has given every indication he’ll re-up them again this week or next. The administration is calling the shots on testing, vaccination and the pace of lifting pandemic restrictions.

But lawmakers have passed a few bills to make bipartisan accommodations — on unemployment assessments for businesses, remote access to marriage licenses and the like.

Republicans are also pushing legislation to rein in the Walz powers, from his business closures to his distribution of federal aid.

A group of Republican lawmakers joined Monday with hospitality industry leaders in pressing for clear criteria and a goal of May 1 for reopening businesses if current coronavirus patterns of improvement continue.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said resort and event-center operations need certainty in particular because many are losing bookings to other states months into the future as Minnesota keeps its capacity limits intact.

“Time is ticking,” Baker said. “Every week that goes by is another week we’re closer to a busy season when we can get outside. The businesses need some support here.”

Michael Asp operates 10 restaurants in the Twin Cities. He said clarity is lacking now.

“I feel for all of my employees on the starts and stops that have gone on the last 11 months,” he said. “And I would love to be able to talk with them about a plan about when they can start getting shifts back, when they can no longer be fearful of being called off. It is in everyone’s best interest to plan, plan, plan.”

One bill in particular would prevent him from shuttering schools.

The pressure to get more kids back into classrooms is building as the infection numbers fall. A lot of districts are gradually bringing students back, but many children in the upper grades face weeks more of distance or hybrid learning.

The pressure to get more kids back into classrooms is sure to build as infection numbers fall.

Vaccination rollout

The Walz vaccination strategy is also attracting criticism as being slow and confusing.

It hasn’t helped that there have been repeated shifts along the way. Republican state Sen. Karin Housley, who has held multiple hearings on the vaccine rollout, said consistency is a problem.

“Where’s the plan? That I think is what all of us want. We want to see the plan. Not new week, new protocols, new website, new pilot sites,” Housley said. “We just want to see the plan.”

The state’s hospital group pressed Walz on Friday to revisit its distribution process.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, even wrote to West Virginia’s governor seeking advice on how Minnesota can speed up its vaccination program.

West Virginia has been among the most efficient in administering vaccines, although it is a fraction of Minnesota’s size geographically and by measure of population.

Walz administration officials say it comes down to supply and demand.

Minnesota is at the mercy of the federal government on how many doses it gets and there’s a long, long list of people desperate to get a shot. They’re also trying to make sure the vaccine is available in an equitable fashion, not just to those with the best connections.

Chauvin trial security

Meanwhile, Walz is struggling to gain traction in his push to free up public safety money to beef up security in the Twin Cities during and after the upcoming Derek Chauvin trial.

Operation Safety Net is what it’s being called. Walz wants lawmakers to set aside $35 million set aside in a new public safety fund, a portion to be used to reimburse local police and fire agencies who offer personnel.

“We know that the odds are pretty good that this is going to attract a large number of people,” Walz said last week. “We know that if we plan accordingly we can create a safe space for peaceful First Amendment expressions while diminishing the chance for crime and I just need their help.”

While House Democratic allies are pressing ahead, the proposal has encountered stiff Senate resistance.

Republicans want Minneapolis to shoulder the costs of any local police response and assistance they get from other city and county departments.

Just since last May, the National Guard has submitted $13 million in invoices for its expenses related to missions around civil disturbances. That includes about $113,000 associated with state Capitol duty after the uprising in Washington last month.

The State Patrol has devoted $7.7 million to the assignments. The Department of Natural Resources incurred $3.2 million in extra costs for conservation officers it deployed.

Those two agencies are bracing for at least $4 million in costs around the Chauvin trial.

But Republicans are also trying to leverage this dispute to remind people of problems in the Minneapolis Police Department and city proposals to overhaul that force.

The House Ways and Means discussed the proposal Monday but didn’t give it a final vote. As Republicans voiced their objections, DFL Rep. Hodan Hassan of Minneapolis said her city isn’t being treated fairly in the debate.

She said outside agitators contributed to the civil unrest last spring but that Minneapolis is getting all of the scorn as it prepares for the upcoming trials.

“I want to encourage you to have compassion and stop demonizing people who have been victims themselves,” she said. “There has been trauma inflicted in my community over and over and over.”