Gov. Walz’ emergency powers enable him to bully business into backing his actions

I wrote recently about how the arbitrary making and enforcement of laws under Gov. Walz’ emergency powers was creating two Minnesotas. One is subject to these laws. The other is not. Which of these Minnesotas you belong depends on how the Governor feels about you.

Examples abound. Menards is allowed to stay open but Hub Hobby is closed. Small candy stores were closed but Minnesota’s largest candy store got special permission to open. I quoted KEYC at the time:

For many small businesses, owners and employees are wondering when they can finally reopen their doors to customers and they’re frustrated that some independently-owned stores like Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store in Jordan, can reopen early before May 18. Many are saying they’re ready to open and implement social distancing guidelines in their buildings for customers but the clock is ticking and their wallets are slimming.

“I’ve gone from being sad, to angry, to just devastated and back to being angry. It’s literally like going through the stages of death of somebody dying because you are literally watching this business that you have put so much pride, passion and effort into, long days and you’re watching it just dissipate a little bit more every day,” said Jo Radlinger, owner of Jo’s Fitness Garage.

While most restaurants can scrape by, by offering curbside pick-up and delivery, owners say it isn’t enough because a bulk of their profit comes from in-house dining.

 “We’re down 70 percent. We’re missing out on that whole angle and stuff like that. I get the whole social distancing and I realize why we’re doing this, but I mean we’re to the point now that I mean come on it’s time,” said Jason Amdahl, Owner of Ummie’s Bar & Grill.

Small businesses like Jo’s Garage on North Riverfront Drive serve a small amount of clientele…which works in their advantage because they could control social distancing guidelines in their building…unlike larger gyms that have thousands of members.

“The number thing has never been an issue for me, because that’s been my premise as a business the whole time I’ve been in business, is to be small, exclusive and private. That’s what my clients like. That also gives me the ability to control the people that come in here,” said Radlinger.

…small business owners are frustrated over how that business was allowed to open early given their high volume of customers it serves.

“I just don’t it’s fair. I just think it sets a precedence and you have the little guys down here just screaming. Not just here, but they’re all over the state. They see that and they say ‘this guy is an independent guy, so how’s he able to open.’ Give me a break,” said Amdahl.

[The reopening of Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store] also presents some confusion over just how essential some, services are.

“There’s been businesses that have been given the pardon and the approval from the governor to reopen. It’s hard to understand the division of essential and nonessential and I’ve been coded as a nonessential, but I would argue that I am essential because of the whole health requirement in keeping people healthy. That’s where I’ve struggled with all of this is it seems a little unfair,” said Radlinger.

Those businesses have plans in place for social distancing like spacing out seating, strengthening cleaning procedures or allowing for directed foot traffic through their buildings.

The question of which of Gov. Walz’ Minnesotas a business belongs to can literally mean the difference between continued existence or non-existence. The power to arbitrarily shut down businesses at will – and the willingness to use that power – gives the Governor great influence over those businesses. This weekend, the Star Tribune described that influence in action.

Just as Gov. Tim Walz announced a statewide mask mandate this week, his top economic development commissioner fired off an e-mail to business and industry groups urging them to submit pre-written letters supporting the policy to newspapers and other organizations.

None of the sample letters included disclosures indicating the text was written and provided by state officials.

The push sparked protests Friday from Senate GOP leaders accusing the DFL governor of using state resources for what they called a “taxpayer funded PR campaign” in support of a mandate that many Republicans oppose as an overreach of his emergency powers to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The letter templates were sent out in an e-mail Wednesday as Walz was announcing the mandate, which takes effect Saturday. They were attached to e-mails signed by Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Steve Grove. Among the drafts were letter-to-the-editor templates custom-tailored to be from business owners, health care professionals and “parents/educators.”

“[To] make this work — we need your help,” Grove’s e-mail reads. “Your support for wearing masks is critical toward ensuring adoption. As respected leaders in your communities, we need your voices to ensure we mask up, so that we can continue to reopen our economy.”

A Walz spokesman directed questions on the letters to DEED. A spokeswoman for the agency said officials there believe the administration actions were within ethical and legal bounds.

Not everybody thinks so.

David Schultz, a Hamline University professor who served as the president of Common Cause Minnesota, said the administration’s move raises several ethical, and potentially legal, issues. Asking groups to publish letters a state agency drafted on the state’s behest, without disclosure, prompts transparency concerns, he said. The use of public dollars for what Schultz called “quasi-lobbying,” encouraging individuals and groups to express public support for the policy, is also problematic.

“We know you can’t expend public dollars for clearly political purposes,” he said. “There’s something inappropriate in expending public dollars for the purposes of encouraging the public to take political positions. And this is clearly a political position.”

In addition to the letter-to-the-editor templates, DEED provided sample text that individuals could send to state officials to indicate support for the mandate. Instructions at the top say to “e-mail or mail” the message to the governor. Schultz said that request borders on “subterfuge” by creating the “false perception of an overflowing of support for the administration’s policy in this area where there may not be.”

Putting that request to groups and industries with business in front of the administration adds another layer of potentially concerning political pressure, he said.

“If they had sent out something to say, ‘encourage your friends, encourage your neighbors to wear a mask,’ that’s OK, that’s no big deal,” he said.

“But to write the canned language and encourage people to send this back to the governor, so the governor can say ‘I got 25,000 postcards telling me they support what [I’m] doing?’ That’s not just a transparency issue, there’s a little bit of deception there.”

In the run up to the imposition of the mask mandate, much was made of how widespread support for it was, including from the business community. Is it any wonder, when Gov. Walz has shown himself willing to use his emergency powers to shut down businesses arbitrarily?

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.