GOP calls for waiving penalties against businesses, dropping mask mandate in budget talks 

Walz said he won’t “negotiate away safety and protocols that are dictated by science.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka discusses the state budget at a press conference Thursday. (Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus/Website)

State Republicans are leveraging Minnesota’s biennial budget negotiations to pressure Gov. Tim Walz and his Democratic allies into dropping COVID-19 restrictions.

Walz is expected to announce a loosening of restrictions Thursday, but the details of that announcement remain unknown. To avoid a special session, lawmakers need to pass a two-year budget by the Legislature’s May 17 adjournment.

Senate Republicans want to waive any and all penalties against businesses for COVID-19 violations and suspend Walz’s mask mandate, according to an initial budget offer sent to House Democrats Tuesday.

They also want Democrats to agree to lifting all executive orders issued under the COVID-19 peacetime emergency, including restrictions on schools, businesses, places of public accommodation, and youth sports.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said these are some of the “key executive orders that need to go away.”

“What makes it more challenging this year is we have $2.6 billion of federal stimulus money. We’ve said that we need to spend that working with the governor and the House. The governor should not spend that by himself,” Gazelka said at a Tuesday press conference.

The Republican leader said last week that Minnesotans can expect a “lights-on, tight budget” if Democrats don’t agree to these conditions. A “lights-on” budget funds essential government services to avoid a complete shutdown in the event that negotiations fall apart.

Some conservatives, however, think this strategy is actually a “massive compromise,” since lights-on budgeting relies on the state forecast for setting budget targets.

On the policy front, Senate Republicans want to pass a voter ID law, provisional balloting, and abortion facility licensure.

“We do think that abortion facilities should be licensed, just like virtually everything else, so that there’s state oversight,” Gazelka said Tuesday.

Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Center, are hoping to reach an agreement on budget targets by the end of the week.

“I don’t think we need to start talking about worst-case scenarios,” Hortman said Monday regarding Gazelka’s threat of a “lights-on” budget.

Walz said during a press conference Tuesday that he won’t “negotiate away safety and protocols that are dictated by science.”

“What I can tell you is that Thursday, I hope Thursday, we’ll be prepared to make an announcement around where we’re at in COVID,” said Walz, who called Gazelka’s strategy “reckless.”

According to The Center Square, four of the last five budgeting sessions have gone to a special session, including the last three.