Lawmakers returned to St. Paul Monday for their fifth special legislative session since May, and, much like before, they were mostly consumed with talk and partisan symbolism.
Gov. Tim Walz called the lawmakers back to St. Paul after he issued another 30-day extension of his peacetime emergency declaration because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The partisan battle over mask wearing during the pandemic intensified as a Republican lawmaker was instructed to cover her face to address her colleagues.
State Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, began a speech castigating Walz while she wore a face mask that had been turned inside out because the image of Walz on the front depicted the governor wearing a red clown nose.
“I was informed I would not be recognized unless I switched masks,” Franson said. “I don’t have any other masks because it’s the only mask I like to wear.”
The heightened tensions are not surprising given the calendar: In about three weeks, Minnesotans will vote on all 201 legislative seats amid a national political landscape of increasing acrimony. And, despite guidance from Trump administration scientists, many Republicans have rejected mask wearing and turned refusing to wear them into a signal of political defiance.
Unlike the GOP-controlled Senate, state representatives are required to wear face masks on the floor of the House, which is controlled by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, issued a reminder to members about the face mask rule Sunday night.
A few minutes later, Franson removed the mask, saying: “I can’t really talk with it on. My anxiety is getting to me over this whole situation.”
She continued speaking for several minutes before House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, rose in protest to ask Hortman to intervene.
Winkler said another GOP member had been afforded some discretion because he had spoken only briefly. “Franson is abusing that mild discretion that was provided,” he said. “She should put on a mask if she is going to continue her debate.
Franson complied, saying: “A virus is going to virus.”
She lamented that strangers are shaming people like her for not wearing masks, blaming the government for “psychologically abusing people.”
On Monday, the Reformer reported on DFL state Sen. Chris Eaton’s labor complaint about the lax mask wearing by her GOP colleagues. Despite reminders by Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman, little appeared to have changed during Monday’s floor debate in the upper chamber.
By Monday afternoon, the House voted 69-64 to uphold Walz’s peacetime emergency powers. The Senate, meanwhile, voted 36-31 to end the emergency, with DFL state Sen. Kent Eken, of Twin Valley, joining his Republican colleagues.
The deadlock means Walz will retain his emergency powers.
Bonding bill negotiations continue
Aside from voting on the governor’s emergency powers, lawmakers also hoped to vote on a major public infrastructure bill that would authorize the state to borrow money to pay for well over $1 billion in construction projects.
Requiring a supermajority, a deal has proved elusive since May, but Hortman said it’s possible the House could muster the necessary GOP votes to pass the legislation on Wednesday.
The legislation did not have 15 GOP votes necessary to suspend House rules on Monday, delaying the vote until Wednesday after a second and third reading of the bill.
Hortman told reporters on Monday that if the House approved the $1.37 billion borrowing bill, it was likely the Senate would approve the legislation.
On Twitter, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, suggested the legislation could fall apart. “There is not an agreement on the bonding bill — yet,” he wrote.
Gazelka said he wants tax cuts, road spending and money for wastewater treatment.
The package is being put in jeopardy, he said, by “amendments, conversations and backroom antics we are not a part of.”