The COVID-19 pandemic has largely been pushed to the back burner, replaced by issues that have been simmering for years, if not generations, but have again boiled over.
As the regular legislative session wound down and it became apparent lots of business would be unfinished, it was widely assumed the Legislature would be back for a mid-June special session when Gov. Tim Walz extended his peacetime emergency order related to coronavirus.
What nobody could have anticipated was an action caught on video that sparked civil unrest locally, nationally and around the world.
It is widely accepted that Minnesota has some of the largest racial and economic disparities in the country. Some of those issues have risen to the forefront after the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a black man, under the knee of a white former Minneapolis police officer.
A peaceful remembrance of Floyd remains at the corner where the 46 year old lost his life. However, not too far away, parts of Minneapolis were damaged or destroyed by rioters and looters. The unrest also expanded to St. Paul and other areas in the Twin Cities.
Local businesses — many minority owned — were destroyed, and while the flames and physical fear have been gone for nearly three weeks, tension remains. That is especially true for members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, a group of 14 House members and five senators, who have responded with a package of nearly two-dozen proposals for reform.
In a June 9 statement, caucus members said, “It is time to break down structural racism and fundamentally reshape how law enforcement interacts with our communities to ensure there can be accountability and justice. We can’t wait any longer.”
One of the results in the House is a trio of public safety bills amended and approved Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee on party-line, or nearly party-line, votes.
Time is of the essence if an agreement is to be reached because Senate leadership has said they'll be done with the special session by Friday. House DFL leaders say members should stick around to craft meaningful proposals. Of course, Walz has the power to call members back right away.
“For generations, Black Minnesotans have been expected to wait patiently for equity and justice. Real criminal justice reforms and accountability for police violence is just one example of needing to wait entirely too long,” Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul) said in a statement. “We aren’t prepared to accept arbitrary deadlines or lines in the sand from Republicans when it comes to this issue. We have the opportunity to do truly transformational work, and we’re prepared to do whatever it takes to deliver fairness, justice, and safety in our communities.”
Bills have moved quickly through myriad House divisions and communities — including a seven-hour public safety hearing Saturday. On Tuesday, some members noted their fatigue and, although hearings were done remotely, viewers could sense the tension and frustration with both the underlying reasons for the bills and the process.
The House’s three main public safety and law enforcement accountability bills, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) and amended onto Senate files Wednesday to include the House language for each, are:
But none of those measures will become law without the Senate’s help, and significant differences remain between the changes sought by DFLers in the House and legislation that’s made its way through the Republican-controlled Senate.
Senators met late into the evening Tuesday, passing several bills related to law enforcement accountability and reform. They include:
Senate Democrats don’t believe those measures are enough to achieve significant change. Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent (DFL-Woodbury) said her colleagues hadn’t done enough to address racial disparities and injustices in the criminal justice system.
“The legislation passed today includes no substantive changes to our criminal justice or policing system,” Kent said in a statement. “It is simply not enough to pass the very bare minimum and then pat ourselves on the back. We need real, meaningful change in order to hold systems accountable and keep communities safe.”
Also approved Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee was SSHF132, as amended.
Sponsored by Rep. Mohamud Noor (DFL-Mpls), the bill includes provisions contained in six other pieces of legislation – and several clone bills – focused on rebuilding areas damaged by civil unrest and amounting to about $300 million in appropriations over the 2020-21 biennium.
“Where we go from here really defines who we are,” Noor said. “When there’s no hope, anger and despair move in. We must not ignore the underlying issues.”
The combined legislation has been collectively referred to as “The PROMISE Act” – standing for “Providing Resources, Opportunity and Maximizing Investments in Striving Entrepreneurs.”
The committee also briefly discussed the CARES Act and a second batch of federal funding it provides earmarked for the cities and counties of Minnesota. It’s up to the Legislature and governor to determine who gets how much.
The DFL and Republican caucuses of the House and Senate forged a compromise on how to divide the $841 million in federal funds, a formula that appears in SSHF128, sponsored by Rep. Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth), and SSSF47, sponsored by Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Vernon Center).
The Senate version was passed, 62-4, on Tuesday, and the House Ways and Means Committee plans to act on the bill Thursday morning. It was revealed during a contentious House floor session Wednesday that it would contain an amendment that features items from the governor’s supplemental budget.
Saying the bill had support from leaders of all four caucuses, Republicans said the change could put money intended for cities and counties in jeopardy.
“This is politics at its worst,” said Rep. Anne Neu (R-North Branch).
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) noted the committee would have a chance to talk about things like child care rates, transit safety, and prevention of suicide and homelessness for veterans. “By going through the committee and having a hearing and coming back to the floor is the best way for us to weigh in as the Minnesota House rather than deferring to a supposed agreement among leaders or a decision by the Minnesota Senate that this is the best thing to do.”
— House Public Information Services’ Mike Cook, Jon Mohr, Victoria Cooney and Rob Hubbard contributed to this story