From primaries to sentencing reform: Five things that actually got done at the Minnesota Legislature in 2016

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Over the weekend, rank-and-file lawmakers managed to move ahead with bills they’ve been debating over the last 10 weeks.

There were some major casualties when the dust settled on a chaotic 2016 legislative session.

The two biggest losses were a long-term transportation funding plan, which lawmakers have been debating for nearly two years, and a $1 billion package of construction projects, both of which fell apart in dramatic fashion on the House and Senate floors Sunday night. Another issue legislators had worked to resolve all session, complying with federal driver’s license security standards, or Real ID, also failed to reach a compromise as the final hours of session melted away.

But it wasn’t totally a do-nothing session, as some thought it might be.

Over the weekend, rank-and-file lawmakers managed to move ahead with bills they’ve been debating over the last 10 weeks, everything from drug sentencing changes and police body camera regulations to switching Minnesota to a presidential primary system.

Here are five issues that actually managed to make it across the finish line:

Presidential primary

Starting in 2020, Minnesotans will get to cast a ballot for their preferred presidential candidate in a primary. When hundreds of thousands of people crowded the state’s caucuses in March, many were met with long lines and confusion, thanks to a party-run process held in various school gymnasiums and community centers across the state. That sparked a legislative effort to switch to the primary system, which would allow people to vote at their leisure throughout the day. In order to get the backing of both state party chairs, lawmakers created a hybrid system, which allows the parties to still hold caucuses and mobilize volunteers in non-presidential years. Legislators opted for an open system, meaning voters would not have to preregister with a party ahead of the primary, or be bound to a party in future elections. However, voters must vouch that they generally agree with the views of the party, information that will be open to the public. Dayton signed the bill into law on Sunday.

Drug sentencing reform

Possibly one of the biggest changes this year was an agreement between lawmakers, law enforcement, county attorneys and prosecutors to overhaul the way the state sentences drug offenders. The new guidelines will 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 will 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 dealers, who are being treated the same under the law now. Dayton signed the proposal on Sunday, making it the first time drug sentences have been changed in Minnesota in almost 30 years. 

Payments for the wrongfully imprisoned

Michael Hansen spent more than than six years behind bars in the death of his 3-month-old daughter until new evidence overturned his conviction. After years in prison for sexual assault, Roger Lee Olsen was released when his stepdaughter recanted her testimony. Koua Fong Lee served time for vehicular homicide until news came out that his make and model of vehicle sometimes accelerated on its own. All three men will get a small piece of the Minnesota’s budget surplus under a law change that requires payments in cases of wrongful convictions. It amounts to just $1.8 million of the $300 million budget bill, but the three men say the money will go a long way to getting back what they lost while they were behind bars.

Police body cameras

It took two years to reach a deal, and most thought it wouldn’t come together, but in the session’s final days lawmakers passed a bill to regulate the data collected by police body cameras. It’s an issue that has become increasingly scrutinized in recent years, as police and citizen relations have grown tense. Many law enforcement agencies across the state now wear body cameras to capture their interactions with citizens, but agencies fear using them without a statewide policy on what to do with the videos after they’ve been collected. In the end, the proposal would make most of that data private, unless there was a case of substantial bodily harm. Initially, Dayton opposed language in the bill that said only law enforcement could review body camera footage before filing an incident report, not other parties, but that was removed from the final bill. “Public record means that should be available to everyone at the same time,” Dayton said. 

That doesn’t mean everyone walked away happy. Civil rights groups protested the bill in the final days of session, saying it favors law enforcement’s positions, not people who interact with the police. And at his Monday press conference, Dayton didn’t promise to sign the bill, even after some lawmakers went home believing he supported it. Stay tuned.

Soccer stadium tax breaks, mostly

If Gov. Mark Dayton signs a tax cut proposal and budget bill sent to him by lawmakers, it will give the city of St. Paul and Major League Soccer fans two considerable wins for the 2016 session. The tax bill includes property tax exemptions around the yet-to-be-constructed facility, and the budget bill was amended at the last minute to include a liquor license for the facility. The tax and liquor provisions are small, but team owners said they could mean the difference between going ahead with construction or not. At a press conference Monday, Dayton didn’t say whether he’d sign the bill, but he was generally supportive of the project. “I would hope that they would see that they got most of what they were looking for,” he said. The final deal left out sales tax exemptions on construction materials, the third and final piece of the package the team requested. But Dayton also noted that the team can apply for sales tax exemptions retroactively. (You can read more on the soccer stadium here.)

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/24/2016 - 10:57 am.

    Almost open

    Having been through the caucus process, and not liking it at all, I’m happy to see Minnesota return to a presidential primary. It’s an “almost open” election because the two big political parties (at least for the time being) protected their own interests by requiring voters to vouch for “general agreement” with the positions of the party in whose primary election they’re going to vote. A truly open primary would only require that a voter be registered to vote, and whether they agreed with party positions or philosophy in general would be irrelevant to their ability to cast a ballot for a candidate. I’d prefer a genuinely open primary, but this half-measure is certainly far better than relying on the caucus system.

    I’ll continue to avoid caucuses in the off-years, but look forward to casting a ballot in the presidential years.

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 05/24/2016 - 11:27 am.

      But a genuinely open primary too easily allows “strategic voting”, allowing members of one party (where that primary is not contested) to vote for the weakest candidate in the other party.

      Why should members of one party choose the nominee of the other party? For example, California Republicans voting for Clinton or Sanders this year. Or Democrats voting for Ron Paul in 2012.

      It gets a bit more complex with true independents – I could see an argument there. Not workable, but one way to prevent this type of strategic voting would be if there was a way to make your primary vote count in the general election IF that candidate was running.

      Or maybe ranked choice in the general with no primary.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/24/2016 - 05:19 pm.

        Tried Both…Non-aligned Independent for Years Now

        I believe we should have one party candidate on the general ballot, as long as we maintain clearly designated parties–all of them. Examine ranked choice closely for ways to game that. Do we really want to seat the person who comes in 2nd the most? Just envision campaigns to gather the most second place votes. Counter intuitive to me.

        I very much believe party primaries should be, well, for the parties to determine. Primaries do make sense in that they vet each strain within its breed, so to speak (think Westminster). A very good test of a given party’s potential for governance comes from that process, as well. 2016 is a true example of that vetting process: Republicans with 17 to start, Democrats with 2 and a sort of cardboard standup. Nobody can honestly claim the RNC cooked this one. I say let the partisans do their best within their own rules, then give me one from each column to examine for six months or so.

        As an Independent who votes for a given candidate in a given year based on what I perceive to be the national/state needs and candidate character/qualifications, I let the broader system work its will. If I prefer one printed name over others, I choose it; otherwise, I write in my preference. I’m pretty much a centrist with a little residual strain of ’70s rebellion left in my political DNA. I always vote for someone I believe to be the best prospect at hand. I’ve voted for Ralph Nader as well as Gene McCarthy, as write-ins, and for Mike Hatch as well as Arne Carlson.

        Why should I wish to meddle with the process of MN DFL or Republican parties, for example? Why would they ever let me? Their business is just that. So, I come down on the side of party/philosophical/whatever designation for primary voters. Maybe that’s why I consider a primary to mean “main,” not “preliminary” for this exercise.

        (A caucus likely does weed out the “sleepers” better than any primary scheme. Hard to fool the neighbors.)

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/24/2016 - 11:31 am.

      Lots of us disagree that a totally open primary is a healthy way to go. We must remember that we are not electing an official. Primaries chose party candidates, and the parties have the right to expect that the people voting for a DFL or GOP or Green candidate actually agree with that party’s principles.

  2. Submitted by Ellen Hoerle on 05/24/2016 - 11:50 am.

    This is a sad

    state of affairs. I moved here in summer of 2002, at the tail end of Ventura’s term as governor. I consider Ventura’s legacy to be his support for light rail.

    After considering Pawlenty’s legacy, in my mind, it’s the Twin’s stadium, the U of M stadium and years and years of bickering with Democrats over budget deficits and tax cuts, initial veto of state funding for Green Line construction.

    Then Dayton comes along and we get expansion of all-day Kindergarten, the Vikings stadium, a budget surplus that Republicans refuse to spend in any other way other than tax cuts.

    So my take on this is that the only bipartisan accomplishment our lawmakers in the state have been able to agree on over the last 14 years can is funding for more stadiums. That’s it!! All the rest of us who drive on our roads and sit in traffic jams for hours or want to take alternative forms of transportation to the city are SCREWED in this state. The only people who matter, apparently, are sports fans.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/24/2016 - 05:32 pm.


      To the modern concept of urban renewal: stadia pro bono publico.
      I think this concept pretty much started with the old Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.

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