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Gov. Walz defends his health commissioner

DFL Gov. Walz says this is the worst time for the Minnesota Senate to consider ousting Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, as the state gears up to vaccinate children.

MINNEAPOLIS — Gov. Tim Walz told reporters Tuesday he stands fully behind Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, who has led the state's battle against the COVID virus and served three different governors.

Malcolm faces the prospect of being ousted by Senate Republicans who are unhappy with how the Walz administration shut down businesses and schools during the worst if the pandemic.

"I’ve never wavered once," Gov. Walz remarked. "I still am every day gaining more admiration and awe of the work the commissioner has to do. And we’ll just need to continue to do our work."

Walz made the remark as he, Malcolm and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty received their vaccine booster shots at a Cub Foods store in north Minneapolis. The trio continue to tout vaccinations as the key to bringing life back to normal.

If the GOP-controlled Senate decides to bring Malcolm up for vote of confirmation during the regular session in February, there's nothing Democrat Walz can do to stop it.  But the governor has sought assurances from Senate leaders that they won't do it during a special session, which may or may not happen.

Walz said this would be the worst time for Republicans to take down Malcolm, as she's leading a mammoth logistics and supply operation to accommodate the vaccines our children in the 5-year-old to 11-year-old range.

"Our ordering and procurement of hundreds of thousands of these doses to literally 1,500 locations across MInnesota. Different needles, getting out the different information to give to people. All of those things -- that’s the job that's being managed by Jan Malcolm," Walz explained.

"That is critically important work that needs to be done. The belief that you would blow a hole in that just doesn’t make any sense."

Sen. Jim Abeler, the Anoka Republican who heads the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, has called for Malcolm's oust. At a medical freedom rally at the state Capitol in August, Sen. Abeler said Malcolm has been a cheerleader for vaccinations but hasn't done enough to warn people about the downsides to getting the shots.

It's not an idle threat. The Senate has already fired two Walz commissioners and was on the verge of firing another one when she quit.  Senators axed Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink in August of 2020, saying her enforcement of COVID restrictions had been hostile to business.

A month later, they fired Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley. The most common reason cited by his critics was that his department filed lawsuits that delayed final permitting for the Enbridge Line 3 replacement oil pipeline. 

The Senate was on the verge of firing MPCA commissioner Laura Bishop in July when she abruptly resigned. Republicans were sharply critical of the Pollution Control Agency pushing ahead with California-style clean car emissions standards, which are set to go in place for model year 2025.

RELATED: GOP senators decry state worker vax mandate

Senate Republicans have been unwilling to assure Walz that Malcolm won't be fired in a special session. In an Oct. 15 letter to Walz, Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller put it this way:

"At this time, the only obstacle to addressing today’s needs is your unwillingness to put frontline workers and farmers ahead of the job security of your cabinet. The Senate’s constitutional authority of 'advice and consent' to gubernatorial appointments cannot be limited in timing or scope.

Your publicly stated position that a special session will not be called without assurances regarding the future of agency heads is jeopardizing progress on issues important to Minnesotans."

RELATED: Essential worker bonus bill stalls at Capitol

Lawmakers had tentatively planned for a September special session so they could finalize COVID bonus payments to essential workers. The Legislature set aside $250 million of federal COVID relief money to pay as bonuses to people who couldn't work from home.

But as of late October, that session still hasn't happened because a working group hasn't been able to agree yet on how large the bonuses should be and which essential workers should get the checks. Republicans want larger checks sent to fewer people, while Democrats want smaller checks sent to a broader set of people.

That's not the only sticking point. Gov. Walz would also like to take up a drought-resistance package, and Senate Republicans want to pass legislation further restricting Walz's emergency powers. Most of those powers were stripped by the legislature last summer, which is a move Democrats reluctantly agreed to as part of negotiations to get Republicans to accept more police reform measures.