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

No, it wasn’t totally a do-nothing session, as some thought it might be. Here is a look at the issues that actually managed to make it across the finish line.

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

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.

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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.)