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Even as they make progress on other budget bills, Minnesota lawmakers remain at odds over policing reforms

Lawmakers have now agreed to 12 of the 13 bills that will likely make up Minnesota’s $52 billion state budget. The one thing left to wrap up: the bill tied to public safety, corrections and the judiciary.

Senate Majority Paul Gazelka: “We’re at the end of where we’re going to offer and it’s just a matter of accepting that neither side is going to get everything they want.”
Senate Majority Paul Gazelka: “We’re at the end of where we’re going to offer and it’s just a matter of accepting that neither side is going to get everything they want.”

Top political leaders at the Minnesota Capitol are making progress on the two-year state budget before a July 1 deadline for government shutdown. But while lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz have struck deals on everything from taxes to education, one thorny issue remains at an impasse: policing.

Lawmakers have now agreed to 12 of the 13 bills that fund what’s likely to be a $52 billion state budget and passed five of them through the House and Senate. The only thing left to wrap up ahead of the Thursday deadline is the bill tied to public safety, corrections and the judiciary.

And while there is some indication that the Republican-led Senate and the Democrat-controlled House have made progress in talks over the last few weeks, they still disagree over how much should be done to change law enforcement after the police killing of Daunte Wright and murder of George Floyd.

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Democrats have offered a bevy of measures aimed at reform, such as limiting traffic stops or requiring police to turn over body camera footage to families of those killed by police within 48 hours. Republicans, meanwhile, have opposed many of the potential changes, arguing some could put public safety at risk or hamstring police.

“We have offered a number of things, we offered an additional thing last night,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, describing policing talks outside of the Senate chambers on Thursday. “We’re at the end of where we’re going to offer and it’s just a matter of accepting that neither side is going to get everything they want.”

What’s up for debate

Policing was at the forefront of legislative debate after Floyd was killed, prompting lawmakers to approve a host of reforms, such as banning departments from offering “warrior”-style training and altering when police are allowed to use deadly force.

Law enforcement again moved to the top of the DFL agenda after former Brooklyn Center officer Kim Potter shot and killed Wright earlier this year. By the estimation of House Speaker Melissa Hortman, a DFLer from Brooklyn Center, Democrats proposed 120 changes to policing and the criminal justice system this year.

“To the Senate’s credit they have agreed to 36 policy provisions that weren’t in their bill,” Hortman said on Tuesday, referring to a budget proposal made by Republicans. “But we haven’t gotten to the root of the issue yet.”

State Rep. Cedrick Frazier
State Rep. Cedrick Frazier
Rep. Cedrick Frazier, a New Hope Democrat who has played a major role in negotiations on police reform, said among the many DFL proposals still in play, House lawmakers are pushing to limit no-knock warrants, change body camera disclosure laws, limit traffic stops for offenses like expired car tabs or broken tail lights, ban police from affiliating with white supremacists or terror groups, better collect data on cops accused of misconduct and grants for public safety efforts that don’t involve police.

Their larger plan on policing “doesn’t defund police,” Frazier said, “but it also provides alternatives to just putting more police officers in those communities that are already over-policed.”

Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, said Thursday that he was open to banning extremist affiliations and ending traffic stops over expired car tabs.

Republicans have been open to a few other measures as well. But Limmer said top leadership — Gazelka, Hortman and Walz — had completely taken over after negotiations in the last few days because he and House DFLers like Frazier were at “loggerheads.”

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Does bill go far enough for some Democrats?

Walz on Thursday said he, Gazelka and Hortman had agreed on a few provisions, including the extremist police ban and a measure to write model policies for police responding to public assemblies and protests. “There is movement,” Walz said.

But he also seemed to acknowledge Democrats and Republicans weren’t necessarily on the brink of a deal either. “It’s probably fair to say it’s a little bit stuck,” Walz said.

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Nick Pfosi
Gov. Tim Walz
The governor and Gazelka struck similar tones, arguing that at some point lawmakers will have to walk away with a deal, regardless of whether Democrats think it goes far enough. Walz said it’s difficult to move Republicans when he believes they’re content without any police reforms, and said it would be “unacceptable” for Democrats to walk away and not do “some of these policies that are very universally agreed upon.”

“There’s a lot of passion around this,” Walz said. “But I also think folks that are in those rooms are starting to realize you’re not going to get everything moved. And that question on that is at what point in time are we able to get a bill that moves far enough forward.”

Gazelka on Thursday wouldn’t detail objections to DFL plans and declined to talk about policy discussions in general. The Majority Leader said he thinks lawmakers aren’t dug in so far that they won’t pass a public safety bill, they’re still angling to get as “much as they possibly can get.” But Gazelka said “we’re at the end,” and lawmakers should speed up the process. “We’re ready to wrap it up and we’re ready to throw over things that we want that we’re not going to get and they should be doing the same thing at this point,” Gazelka said.

But he said he “fully” expects to get the bill done before a shutdown. “I think we’re pretty close.”

Walz predicted Thursday afternoon that a public safety deal would come in the next 24 to 48 hours.

That, then, leaves the House DFL and the question of whether Democrats will accept a deal they don’t believe goes far enough or hold off in the hopes of winning more concessions.

Frazier, for his part, left open the possibility that some House Democrats may reject a bill that includes the latest offers from Senate Republicans. “We’re not done negotiating so I can’t speculate on that,” Frazier said. “Because all I know is we’re not done. I’m unwilling to speculate on what would pass or would not pass until we’re actually done and I see what’s in that bill.”

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While Frazier said he thought lawmakers were “getting pretty close here,” he said Limmer and Gazelka are pushing the state to the brink of a shutdown, “because you refuse to .. agree to common sense police accountability and police reform.”

Frazier said he is hopeful a shutdown tied to the public safety, corrections and judiciary budget won’t happen, but characterized the GOP as not agreeing to bills that would have a “meaningful impact.”

“We’ve compromised and we know we’re not going to get everything and we’ve come in as good-faith negotiators,” Frazier said. “We’ve been very patient on something that really requires a sense of urgency.”

Near the finish line

The bill to fund public safety, corrections and the judiciary is the glaring exception to the rapid progress on the other budget bills this week. Midnight Wednesday is the deadline for passage, when the current two-year budget and 2021 fiscal year end. At that point, absent new appropriations agencies and programs have no legal authority to spend any money. But any individual budget bill that is passed and signed frees up dollars for those departments.

State Sen. Warren Limmer
State Sen. Warren Limmer
With Senate passage of a transportation bill Thursday, for example, the state can stop preparing for shutdowns of road projects. Once a Housing bill passes the Senate, the clock will start on a so-called off-ramp from the Walz eviction moratorium. When the environment and natural resources bill passes the House, perhaps by Friday, any risk of parks closures goes away. And adoption of the already agreed-to Health and Human Services budget means family investment program payments and child care subsidies will still flow.

Still, the process of drafting and printing bills, scheduling floor time for amendments, speeches and passage — while also adhering to the rules requiring time between bill posting and floor votes — will require the weekend and the first days of next week, even on bills that are already agreed to.

There are two other bills that might need separate action. One is a grab bag of items that haven’t fit into the budget bills, such as funding for planning and design of a I-94 landbridge for the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul as well as money for a proposed lumber products plant in Cohasset. The other is a bill being considered by House and Senate leaders that would let the Legislature end Minnesota’s peacetime state of emergency rather than letting it lapse on its own later this summer.

If the fight over police reform stops passage of the public safety, corrections and judiciary budget bill, only those areas of spending would be impacted. But among the things that budget funds are state prisons, leading Commissioner of Corrections Paul Schnell to that he might be able to use reserve funds to keep prisons running for a week or two after June 20.

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The bill also funds the courts, setting up the potential for the Supreme Court to either shut down or reverse its own 2017 court ruling that the courts lack authority to order emergency funding. “The language of Article XI, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution is unambiguous: ‘No money shall be paid out of the treasury of this state except in pursuance of an appropriation by law,’” wrote Chief Justice Lorie Gildea for the majority in the 6-1 ruling in The Ninetieth Minnesota State Senate vs. Mark B. Dayton. “Article XI, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution does not permit judicially ordered funding for the Legislative Branch in the absence of an appropriation.”

It is that ruling that has led Walz and legislative leaders to warn that a government shutdown in 2021 would look far different from the last shutdown in 2011, when courts ordered funding for 80 percent of state government functions, payments and programs.

There is also the potential for passage of temporary funding that would keep current funding levels in place and provide more time for agreement on public safety. But it has been the midnight June 30 deadline that has pushed negotiators, including Walz and the top leaders of the House and Senate, to make whatever progress that has been achieved.

Walz said Thursday that he doesn’t favor that path. “I’m telling them that’s not what we’re looking for,” he said.

Nor does Walz think such a stopgap measure will be needed. While acknowledging that the public safety bill is “a little bit stuck,” he expressed confidence that all the bills will pass in time.

“It sounds like there will be five bills headed to me today,” Walz said. “There’s a lot of things being taken care of, things that we’re really proud of. There is reason to be optimistic.”