Before George Floyd was killed by police last week, Minnesota lawmakers expected to hold a special session in mid-June, primarily to address the COVID-19 pandemic and negotiate a measure to pay for public construction projects.
Now, after Floyd’s death — and the protests and arson that followed it — a very different agenda has emerged at the state Capitol. Many in the DFL, led by a bloc of lawmakers of color, are now calling for a special session to change policing law, pump money into recovery projects for Minneapolis small businesses and perhaps give other state dollars to help black communities.
At a press conference Sunday near the South Minneapolis intersection where Floyd was detained, those lawmakers also unleashed frustration over stalled DFL priorities in the Legislature and vowed to try to block bipartisan goals if necessary to muscle through their own.
“The disinvestment in this community is historic,” said state Sen. Jeff Hayden, a DFLer who represents the Minneapolis district where Floyd died. “We need to rebuild, we need recovery in this community.”
The push is supported by top lawmakers in the DFL-led state House. But while Republicans who control the state Senate say they’re open to policy conversations, GOP leaders have also cautioned against what they see as a rush to implement complicated or controversial policies before the proverbial and literal dust has settled in Minneapolis.
What DFLers want to do
Hayden on Sunday said that DFLers want an influx of bonding money — government borrowing used to leverage state dollars into paying for construction projects — to help start rebuilding the Twin Cities. Hundreds of businesses have been broken into, burglarized, or burned in the last week, particularly along the Lake Street corridor, home to many minority-owned small businesses.
Also on the table is a slate of legislation aimed at changing policing laws. Led by Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division, the initiative includes a measure to repeal a statute that blocks police departments from requiring officers to live within city limits. The vast majority of Minneapolis police live outside the city, and some contend police are less likely to use improper force on their neighbors.
The legislative package also includes a push to change use-of-force laws and create a new crime for improper or unjustified use of force that results in death or great bodily harm. Another measure also would permanently move the primary investigation and prosecution role from county attorneys to the Attorney General’s office when police kill someone.
Sunday’s press conference at the Floyd memorial was held by members of the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus (POCI) along with House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent. On Tuesday, dozens of DFLers showed up to a media conference in St. Paul to back the police legislation.
Mariani said DFLers are not looking for “one or two individual pieces of legislation,” but the entire package of policing proposals. That package, he said, represents “first steps only” for change to law enforcement. “It is a false proposition at this point in time to say that the Minnesota Legislature would convene and not address this issue,” Mariani said. “There are no other issues more important than the public safety and well being of Minnesotans. Yes, this rises to the highest level of responsibility for us in the coming session.”
While bonding and policing law may be top of mind, Hayden also said DFLers are looking at other ways to help people of color, including by pumping money to job-training and education programs through “equity grants,” which were established in 2016 after Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark. Those grants paid out more roughly $60 million over their first three years and have become a common addition to the state budget, though nonprofits carrying out the work have asked for more money amid massive job losses within minority communities during the coronavirus pandemic.
Just before COVID-19, the unemployment rate for black Minnesotans was only modestly higher than the rate for white residents. But for decades prior, it had been two or three times higher. The latest figures from the state show roughly 40 percent of black residents in Minnesota’s labor force have applied for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, while about 19.8 percent of white Minnesotans in the labor force have applied for benefits.
Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday he would strongly encourage the Legislature to focus on passing bonding money for communities damaged this week, saying Lake Street and other areas can’t “sit fallow.”
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan also backed the idea of addressing policing reforms during a special session. She said the administration would work closely with lawmakers in the POCI caucus to take up their proposals while also looking at ideas that come out of a policing task force convened by Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Senate GOP wary of quick action
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, declined to comment Tuesday on the DFL plans, though he said in a statement he supported a newly announced human rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department by the state.
Gazelka told reporters on Friday he is open to conversations about policing laws and bonding money but said he wants to take stock of the cost of damage in the Twin Cities before deciding on a plan. “Typically, I do like things to settle a little bit so that we can look objectively at — what are we trying to do and why?” Gazelka said.
Gazelka said that before Floyd’s death, top lawmakers had pledged not to move bills forward during a special session unless key committee chairs and House and Senate leaders all agreed on policy. He said he still expects that arrangement to continue, and he cautioned against making major decisions too quickly.
Gazelka also said that beyond negotiating a bonding bill — a priority for many lawmakers before Floyd’s death — he hoped to use the special session to pass tax cuts and money for small business grants. “That number should be significantly higher now,” he said.
Earlier in the year, the Republican had been meeting with some black community leaders to try and search for “root causes” and solutions to persistent economic and educational disparities.
Though Gazelka said he didn’t have short-term plans for how to fix those issues at the moment, “I acknowledge that we have racial disparities in Minnesota,” Gazelka said. “I want to be able to look at them objectively. I don’t know that we’ve come to any conclusion there other than I’m trying to get to the bottom of some of these things so we can actually make decisions that would make a difference.”
Senate Republicans have opposed some of the policing bills presented by DFLers in the past.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, an Alexandria Republican who served on the police reform task force convened by Ellison, said last week that he and fellow lawmakers could embrace at least some of the group’s recommendations. But Ingebrigtsen said he would be hesitant to make what he called “knee-jerk” changes to use-of-force policy he worries could make work harder or more dangerous for law enforcement.
Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which represents most rank-and-file officers in the state, said Tuesday that he understands the calls for change, but urged lawmakers to stick to the recommendations that the task force released in February. Those were the result of nine months of work and negotiations among reform activists, law enforcement, county attorneys and others.
Peters said the MPPOA would be open to more, and swift, negotiations, but said his views were not seriously considered as part of the DFL legislative proposal.
Some of Mariani’s measures are similar to recommendations coming out of the task force. But others, like changes to the residency requirement or use-of-force law, do not follow the group’s recommendations. On some of the more controversial issues, the task force recommended more meetings and research to try and find compromise.
Peters said his organization opposes requiring officers to live within city bounds. While officers have lots of good community interactions, some also fear retribution from people they have arrested, ticketed or jailed, he said. “When you’re with your family out in public that’s very hard from a safety standpoint to feel safe in some of the areas that you police,” he said.
Prior to Floyd’s death, the Legislature was focused mainly on COVID-19 response and negotiating a bonding bill. But House Republicans have said they will block the construction package unless Walz relinquishes emergency powers he has assumed during the pandemic. (Bonding bills require a three-fifths vote of the House and Senate to pass.)
Hayden, the DFL Senator, also pledged that he, and at least some other Democrats, planned to withhold their votes from a bonding bill or other state priorities until their legislative agenda moves ahead, adding a wrinkle to negotiations.
Flanagan said if the Legislature does not address economic recovery and policing laws, “I don’t see how we can move forward as a state at all,” she said. “This is the time, this is the moment. We have solutions that have come directly from community; it’s time to move them forward.”
Peter Callaghan contributed to this story.