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From reforming the police to curtailing the governor’s powers, Minnesota’s House and Senate have vastly different priorities for special session

It’s not as though the DFL-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate can’t or won’t acknowledge each other’s goals. It’s just that it isn’t going to be a top priority for what will be a unique special session of the Minnesota Legislature.

Minnesota State Capitol
Minnesota State Capitol
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

It’s almost as though two special sessions will begin Friday — on the same day but in different chambers.

In the Minnesota House, the session will be about public safety and policing. Around the corner in the Capitol, the Senate will convene a session about COVID-19 and the extension of the emergency powers of Gov. Tim Walz.

It’s not as though each side won’t acknowledge the other’s goals. It’s just that it isn’t going to be a top priority for what will be a unique special session of the Minnesota Legislature.

In the House, a focus on policing

It was just one week after the Legislature’s regular session adjourned that a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in south Minneapolis while three other officers stood by. The death was followed by weeks of demonstrations and several days of riots that left swaths of damage on Lake Street in Minneapolis and University Avenue in St. Paul, while a series of fires and break-ins also caused severe damage throughout North Minneapolis.

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In response, DFL lawmakers in both the House and Senate, led by the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus (POCI), have released a series of  bills to begin to reform policing and criminal justice systems. The mayors of both Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as lawmakers from the stricken neighborhoods have also pushed the state to help to cover rebuilding costs.

Attorney General Keith Ellison
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Attorney General Keith Ellison
Democrats did not pull their policing bills out of thin air over the last two weeks. Many of them address longstanding DFL priorities or align with recommendations released in February by a task force convened by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.

But DFLers want action while public attention on the issues is high and while at least some of their proposals have gained wider backing. Last week the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, for instance, endorsed legislation to transfer prosecuting power in all cases when an officer kills someone to the state AG. Currently, county attorneys have the primary role but can request assistance from the state. The governor can also hand over prosecution to the AG.

Among other things, the package of legislation, which includes more than 20 provisions, would alter many police training standards and create a new criminal statute for when police use unjustified force that results in death or severe injury.

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, accused the GOP of resisting change by not acting quickly enough on policing and criminal justice, specifically blaming GOP Sen. Warren Limmer of Maple Grove for blocking reform efforts as the chair of the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. 

Hayden also said he would stand in the way of other legislative priorities in order to vault policing and rebuild damaged communities to the top of the Legislature’s to-do list. 

“Black folks are sick and tired of literally suffering from people telling them to wait until the moment is right,” Hayden said. “How many black men and women have to die before an urgent response is warranted with our colleagues?”

State Sen. Jeff Hayden
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, accused the GOP of resisting change by not acting quickly enough on policing and criminal justice, specifically blaming GOP Sen. Warren Limmer of Maple Grove for blocking reform efforts as the chair of the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.
Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, voiced similar sentiments last week, saying POCI voices “haven’t been amplified, and we haven’t been at the center of making decisions on strategies to address the injustice that is prevalent not only in our state but in the United States. If you’re not going to listen to us now, today, you’re never going to listen to us.”

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On Wednesday, Walz also said policing bills would be a priority, and perhaps his top priority, in the upcoming session. He and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan endorsed the legislation from the POCI caucus and Ellison’s task force, and urged the Legislature to act quickly. 

“I don’t want to call the national guard back to the streets here because I think that is what would end up happening if we don’t address this,” Walz said.  

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan
Office of the Governor
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan
Flanagan said she talked Wednesday morning to Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, who was shot to death by St. Anthony police in 2016. “She said God gave you Philando, but Philando wasn’t enough. And now God has given you George Floyd,” Flanagan said. “We cannot let this opportunity pass, it is too important.”

Yet the call for speedy change may run up against the sober deliberation preached by GOP leaders. In a speech outlining his priorities for the special session last week, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he has been “searching his soul” over the demonstrations in the Twin Cities. 

He also said he met with a group of black community leaders to learn more about racial inequities in the state. “I’m listening a lot, and I’m making mistakes, and I’m talking to people to understand what’s going on,” Gazelka said. “Why is the pain so deep? I want to understand.”

He said the bonding bill could have a bigger focus on helping businesses in the Twin Cities recover from damage, and that small business grants focused on people of color, women and veterans could get an injection of cash. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Gazelka also said “more work can be done” on criminal justice reform, but also argued Limmer and the GOP have been more willing to move civil rights or policing legislation in recent years than DFLers give them credit for, citing a 2019 bill that allows homeowners to eliminate restrictive covenants on their property and 2017 measures to recruit more people of color to policing and to require law enforcement to implement de-escalation and crisis management training.

Still, the majority leader cautioned against lawmakers using the special session to try to pass a sweeping police reform agenda, given that might take time and lengthy work to find the right answers, he said.

“To actually expect that to be done in the next week is not how the legislative bodies work,” Gazelka said. “We meet in committees and we fully vet issues to make sure we get it right because it’s not just for now, this is for a generation to come.”

In the Senate, a push to curtail the governor’s powers

Gazelka’s press conference addressed both the Floyd homicide and the governor’s emergency powers, and he acknowledged that one of the first acts in the Senate will be to vote to rescind the emergency declaration put in place and extended by Gov. Tim Walz.

By extending his declaration of a peacetime emergency to respond to COVID-19, Walz also had to reconvene the Legislature in order to give it the opportunity to rescind the order. And that’s what the GOP-controlled Senate plans to do — even if the DFL-controlled House has little interest in following suit and will block the move from passing there. If both houses can’t agree on voting to rescind the order, the governor’s emergency declaration stands.

Gazelka has been relatively supportive of Walz’s actions to combat the novel coronavirus in Minnesota. But that support has waned as the weeks went past and the governor was not moving to reopen the economy and society as fast as Gazelka wanted. 

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Now he says that the crisis of the pandemic has ebbed and Walz needs to cede his emergency powers and return the state to normal governance. Doing so would mean Walz would have to request authority from the Legislature before acting; it also means that the nearly 70 emergency orders signed since March 13 would be voided, including a ban on evictions for renters; restrictions on large public gatherings; the expansion of unemployment benefits; a ban on price gouging; permission for out of state medical professionals to work without state licensing; and even allowing food trucks to feed truckers at rest stops.

Each could be enacted by lawmakers should the emergency powers not be extended. But each could also fall victim to partisan politics. A separate peacetime emergency to respond to street unrest was signed May 28 and would not be affected.

“Emergency powers have been the governor telling us what to do,” Gazelka said. “I think it’s time for the state of Minnesota to stop mandating what’s open and what’s not open. Let individuals decide for themselves how to keep safe.” That includes schools in the fall and youth sports over the summer.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt has been the most prominent GOP voice on reopening, often being sharply critical of Walz’s actions over the last six weeks. “Did I agree with him early on? Absolutely,” Daudt said. “When we thought that this was something different, I think he took the appropriate steps. Those are tough decisions to make and he had my support at the time.” 

But since then, Daudt said, the world has learned a lot about the pandemic, infection rates have slowed and forecasts of outbreaks in areas with fewer restrictions have not been realized. Neighboring states that did not limit their economies with stay at home orders — and even Wisconsin, which saw its state supreme court end the state of emergency — have lower rates of spread.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt has been the most prominent GOP voice on reopening, often being sharply critical of Walz’s actions over the last six weeks.
“I just wish the governor would follow the data and the science,” Daudt said. “Our government got it wrong.” 

He predicted that in a month, Walz’s grades from the public will decline and DFLers in the Legislature will be less supportive of his handling of the crisis.

Even so, DFL leaders in the House and Senate aren’t going to go along with a repeal of the emergency declaration extension. “The objective of our work is to protect the people of the state of Minnesota and to improve their lives,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. 

The best way to do that in the midst of a continuing pandemic, she said, is via the peacetime emergency and executive orders. “Our actions would match the governor’s actions, and we believe he has properly exercised his emergency authority,” Hortman said, adding that she thinks Walz’s orders have saved thousands of lives. 

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
But Hortman said she thinks Walz should work with the Legislature on some issues, including how best to spend the $1.87 billion the state received from the federal CARES Act, even though he likely has authority elsewhere in state law to spend it as he thinks best. 

DFLers and Republicans agree they left significant work unfinished when the regular session ended May 18, including a bonding bill that has been cited as a means to help rioted-damaged neighborhoods rebuild; COVID-related tax relief pushed by the Senate, and COVID-related financial assistance pushed by the House.

“The places where we can produce together we should,” Hortman said. “But to the extent that we have Senate Republicans who would stand completely in the way of progress, that’s a situation where executive authority makes more sense, to not let the GOP be an obstacle.”

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said if the Legislature could work together as it did in the first six weeks of the state response, that would be helpful. “But if we get bogged down in partisanship and it slows down the responses that are needed, that’s the problem.”

How long will it take?

Hortman said while there are no legal deadlines for this special session, there are practical ones. Many lawmakers have other jobs, and while they make arrangements during the regular session, they often don’t for unexpected sessions like this one. There’s the fact that all 201 seats in the House and Senate are on the ballot this fall, and most incumbents are seeking reelection.

“A lot can happen quickly but we do have a new and significant workload,” she said of the address policing and the rebuilding or damaged neighborhoods. 

And while some bills have previously been discussed and even passed by the House, others are new. “It’s hard to say how fast or slow those conversations will be because we’re still getting bills drafted to get things ready to begin conversations with Republicans,” Hortman said.

Said Gazelka: “I do expect the session to be a shorter session and then groups meeting on these more complicated issues.”

But Walz expressed less patience. “We need to quit seeing legislating as a time-constrained exercise and see it as a results-based exercise,” he said Wednesday. “We can leave when we get the people’s work done.”