A State Senator’s powerful plea to reopen Minnesota’s economy

Last week, Sen. Jim Abeler of Anoka made a plea to Gov. Tim Walz to open Minnesota’s economy. In a speech on the Minnesota Senate floor, he spoke for many Minnesotans, asking the governor to trust the state’s citizens to do the right thing to save lives, businesses and jobs.

He pointed out that the debate over re-opening is not partisan, and that a number of DLF legislators have publicly or privately agreed with him.

Abeler made two central points. First, he said, he is “critically concerned about what is happening to Main Street and side street families, and the livelihoods of those who are suddenly forbidden to work and can’t even get their boat out of storage or dock installed.” He put forward a new approach—which he called “constrained optimization”—to guide the reopening of Minnesota:

Start reopening small and safe places and then go bigger. And begin today.

Minnesota families are interested in the safety of their neighbors and their town. They are deeply frightened about Covid-19 for their elders, their families, and themselves. And it shows.

They are good people. They care about Minnesota as much as you do. These are the locals who contribute to the middle school girls’ softball team. The ones who always give a door prize for the church bazaar. The Rotarians who always seek to help others. The people who make me proud to know them.

They have been shocked by the dozens of executive orders that have rained down over the past few weeks. They were stunned when their safe workplace was ordered locked.

Had they been asked, given the gravity of this situation, they would have stayed home, instead of needing the threat of a thousand dollar fine and prison. Had they been asked, they would have made heroic efforts to make their small business very safe for their fellow townspeople. They would have likely come up with ideas nobody in government has thought of even yet.

Abeler noted that, according to Gov. Walz’s own modeling, the state is “well ahead of earlier grave projections.” “We have flattened the curve,” he observed, and “built capacity to cover health care needs of the emergency we are facing together.”

However, he added,

those gains could have happened without great personal expense for so many. There has been very much needless collateral damage inflicted on those who were already extremely low risk.

Abeler emphasized, in moving terms, the high cost of the governor’s shelter-in-place order:

My Main Street is dying. Its little mom and pop stores aren’t powerful corporations. They can’t pay their bills. My Anoka Chamber President tells me that time is running out for these businesses to survive.

In these executive orders, they are being cast off like chaff.

Reopening Anoka’s automated car wash will add no deaths. Reopening Anoka’s Greenhaven unmanned golf course will endanger nobody. Allowing the local shoe and clothing stores to reopen is at least as safe as Walmart.

There should be simple guidelines for business owners and employees to follow as they reopen, and “they are poised to do that,” Abeler said:

No lives will be sacrificed to accomplish this. Allowing these re-openings is consistent with epidemiologist Mike Osterholm’s views that we have to find a way to resume some semblance of normalcy while Covid-19 is still around. I agree with him.

My townspeople are going to continue social distancing even after the executive order expires. They will follow safe guidelines and the vulnerable people will say home.

Abeler emphasized that a decision by Gov. Walz to reject a “constrained optimization” approach will have dire consequences:

The next state budget forecast will predict a huge devastating deficit. My personal estimate is at least $5 billion deficit. If we stay closed unnecessarily long, the deficit will be greater. We are going to need these good Minnesotans to be part of the recovery and rebuilding.

Please let them work. Constrained optimization. Start small and safe today.

Abeler’s second point concerned what he called the “opaque process” that has produced the five COVID-19 bills on which Minnesota legislators have been asked to vote. These bills exemplify a process that has grown in recent years, he told me in an interview.

“It’s a secret process, an oligarchy, in which a few people—the Governor, the Senate Majority Leader, the Speaker of the House and staff members and a few other legislators—decide on the content of the bills we vote on,” he said. “The public is already struggling with government transparency, and now many legislators are too.”

Regarding last week’s COVID-19-related bill, Abeler emphasized in his speech that this secretive process “adds to the centralization of power.”

“I have a lot of respect for [Minnesota Department of Health] Commissioner [Jan] Malcolm,” he noted.

However, we are awarding her the authority to suspend all or parts of 20 chapters of law including quarantine protections, without legislative approval. It is too much power for any one person.

It is time to return to the separation of powers that has made Minnesota so great for over 160 years. A thoughtful, collaborative Governor. An inclusive legislature. A transparent process that includes the people we represent.

Abeler concluded his speech with a warning:

At the train crossing by my house, there are two red lights that flash when the train comes. Governor Walz visited there last year. We know to stop when those lights flash.

Hopefully, my red light on the board today [his “no” vote on the COVID-19 bill] will warn Minnesota that we need to do better.

Governor Walz, let’s start today on constrained optimization. Colleagues, let’s commit to a more open process. On both matters, Minnesota will be the winner.