Even for the most optimistic Minnesotans, it’s easy to be discouraged by the 2016 legislative session.
With only three weeks left before adjournment, lawmakers in both the House and Senate are still miles apart on the major issues, namely transportation funding, tax cuts and capital investment projects. And with chatter of a do-nothing session and a major election year coming up this fall — when all 201 legislative seats will be on the ballot — some are already losing hope of getting anything done on the big issues.
But that doesn’t mean absolutely nothing will get accomplished this year. Behind the scenes, a handful of substantial state policy changes are on track for passage. In many cases, that lack of fanfare is key to their success. In fact, in a year when neither side wants to hand the other a major victory they can trumpet on the campaign trail, the quietest efforts are the ones that are making the most progress.
From historic drug sentencing reform to presidential primaries, here’s a look at five major policy changes that might actually happen this year:
Drug sentencing reform
On Friday, representatives from various groups involved in the criminal justice system gathered in tiny press conference room in St. Paul. They made sure to note that none of them were perfectly happy with the deal that had brought them there — that’s why the whole thing worked.
Law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders were there to announce an agreement on the first major changes to the state’s drug sentencing guidelines in nearly 30 years. In the past, such efforts were always blocked, partly because the same powerful groups opposed one another. But this year, they all got together to craft a historic deal. Among other things, the new guidelines would reduce the recommended prison sentence for first-degree possession and sale of drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine from seven years to down to about five years. At the same time, the changes would assign harsher penalties for drug dealers and those who carry drugs across state lines or carry a firearm. The idea was to differentiate between addicts and the dealers, who are being treated the same under the law now.
“The ones that really need to be in prison will be going to prison,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who helped negotiate the deal and will carry the proposal in the Senate.
This year, there were some unusual pressures pushing the debate forward. For starters, inaction would have allowed new drug guidelines proposed by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission to automatically go into effect later this year. Some criticized those changes as too lenient on certain first-degree offenders. The other pressure is the state’s swelling prison population, which is already over-capacity. In theory, the new guidelines will divert some lesser offenders into treatment instead of into prison.
GOP Rep. Tony Cornish, who chairs the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, wasn’t at the press conference Friday because he said “there was nothing to celebrate.” It’s not a perfect solution, with so many still using and selling drugs in Minnesota, he said, but it’s better than the alternative. He plans to carry the proposal through the House, and he expects it will pass. “That’s why now I am satisfied, and I will support it,” Cornish said.
Fantasy sports gaming
An effort to make sure fantasy sports are not considered gambling in Minnesota is moving along in the Legislature and is likely to make it all the way to the governor’s desk. A similar debate is taking place in states across the nation, but it’s an especially big topic in Minnesota, where more than a million residents play fantasy sports.
Minnesota’s current gambling laws don’t address daily fantasy sports — best known for the ubiquitous advertising of the two biggest players, DraftKings and Fan Duel — in which users pay entry fees to manage a roster of players, ultimately earning points and some money if their team does well. The proposal currently moving at the Capitol would classify fantasy sports as a game of skill, not gambling (the gambling classification comes with its own special regulations and taxation). Opponents say the measure would introduce the largest expansion of legal gambling in Minnesota in decades, and others have called for more consumer protection provisions in the growing industry. To quell some of those concerns, legislators put in provisions that attempt to keep those under 18 from playing, and allow for audits of fantasy sports companies, among other things. The bill has bipartisan authors, Democrat Sandy Pappas in the Senate and Republican Tim Sanders in the House, and Gov. Mark Dayton has said he’s “favorable” toward signing a bill to legalize the games.
Criminalizing revenge porn
In late March, legislators in the House’s public safety committee heard tearful testimony from a 21-year-old woman who was unknowingly filmed by her boyfriend during their first sexual encounter. She wasn’t aware of the video until the two recently broke up and he threatened to share the video online. Now heading into the final weeks of session, legislators are poised to pass a bill that would make disseminating such content without the person’s permission illegal.
If approved, the so-called “revenge porn” bill would add Minnesota to the ranks of 26 other states that have passed some kind of provision to handle the increasingly common practice of posting nude photos or other sexually explicit content of someone else on the Internet without their permission. Minnesota’s bill would make the act a gross misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances. The proposal also strengthens the state’s coercion statute, adding to it threats to share a private sexual image to prevent a breakup to or to force sexual acts.
On Monday, Senators overwhelmingly passed the bill off the floor, and the House is slated to take it up next, but the effort hasn’t been without controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union Minnesota said the bill could be an unconstitutional violation of the U.S. Constitution’s free speech protections and might not hold up in court.
The bill’s author in the House, Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, thinks the bill will pass legal and legislative muster this year, partially because the effort has quietly moved through the process. “That was intentional on my part,” Lesch said. “I think that’s helped get some consensus on this issue.”
Minnesota hasn’t had a presidential primary election in more than two decades, but a bill on its way to passage in the House and Senate would change that.
It’s an effort that was born out of Minnesota’s presidential caucuses in March, which were overcrowded, disorganized and left many unable to vote for their desired presidential candidate. Minnesota is one of a dozen states that use the caucus system, which is mostly managed by the political parties. Advocates of switching to the primary system in Minnesota say it will allow the office of the Secretary of State to administer the process, which saw hundreds of thousands of voters turnout this year, more than the parties could handle.
Efforts to switch Minnesota to a primary state have failed in the past, mostly due to opposition from the political parties, which like caucuses as a way to identify and mobilize volunteers for the upcoming election. But a compromise struck this year would make Minnesota a hybrid: the state would hold primaries for president and caucuses for state and local offices. Both party chairs are amenable to the change, giving its chances at the Capitol a big boost.
Tax breaks for the soccer stadium
A few small provisions at the Capitol could have major significance for soccer fans in Minnesota. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minnesota United, the organization given the state’s new Major League Soccer franchise, have unveiled plans to construct a $150 million stadium at the old bus barn site in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. The owners will cover the cost of the new stadium, while the city will handle about $18 million in infrastructure costs. But the owners also want lawmakers to grant an exemption from some local property taxes and sales taxes on construction materials.
In all, that will amount to just several million dollars in tax breaks, though the owners of the team say the project could unravel without them. Luckily for them, the tax proposal has been moving through the Legislature with relative ease and with bipartisan support. It now sits in both the House and Senate tax committees. But there’s one caveat: Their fate could be tied to an overall tax cut bill, a major bargaining chip in end of session negotiations.