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Fireworks expansion bill blasts forward to next committee

Steve Haines co-owns Bear Creek Pyrotechnics in Hinckley, a small business that specializes in fireworks displays.

Yet, every year he sees friends and neighbors drive a few miles and cross the border into Wisconsin to purchase fireworks for personal use. Many of those devices are illegal in Minnesota.

Steve Haines, co-owner of Bear Creek Pyrotechnics, testifies Feb. 21 in support of HF329. Sponsored by Rep. Jason Rarick, left, the bill would regulate the use, sale and manufacture of fireworks. Photo by Paul Battaglia

“I’m watching not only tax dollars go out the door, but I’m watching profitability of my business go down the drain with it,” he said. “The opportunity to expand our business and hire people is something we’ve long sought.”

He’s got an ally in Rep. Jason Rarick (R-Pine City).

Rarick sponsors HF329 that would, in part, expand the list of legal fireworks in Minnesota to include aerial and audible devices, including bottle rockets and Roman candles; however, local units of government could prevent such sales.

The bill, as amended, was approved Tuesday on a split voice-vote by the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee and sent to the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee. A companion, SF235, sponsored by Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake), awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

A so-called “Fun and Freedom Act” was passed 73-56 by the House last year, but went nowhere in the Senate. A similar bill —absent the local oversight language — was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2012, primarily over safety concerns.

Rarick said he wants to meet with the governor’s staff to explain what makes the 2017 bill different.

As in years past, proponents noted the state loses tax revenue to surrounding states — about $5 million in 2010, the last year for which Rarick had numbers — and that illegal fireworks are already used by many Minnesotans, especially around the Fourth of July.

“I stopped by one of these businesses last year on July 2 and asked them approximately how many people that you’re selling to are from Minnesota. Their response was about 80 percent,” Rarick said.

The main change in Rarick’s current bill relates to where fireworks could be sold.

Unlike previous years, which had a roughly six-week window for purchase, HF329 would permit year-round sales in a permanent structure that meets fire code and sales for up to 60 days in a tent. There would be no time restriction for usage.

Rarick said community organizations, such as Boy Scouts or churches, use tents to sell items that are currently legal.

“Permanent structures would be built in areas of high residency. Areas in rural Minnesota with smaller populations would not see these structures put up,” Rarick said. “Realistically, it’s the areas in rural Minnesota that are really looking for this and they’re more appropriate to be used. … I don’t want to restrict groups from being able to sell.”

Opponents again argued that more fireworks would lead to more injuries, more property damage and increases in local public safety costs because of additional fire and police calls.

State Fire Marshal Bruce West said that since sparklers and other ground-based novelties were legalized in 2002, injuries have increased by 120 percent, nearly half by people under age 20 and 22 percent by persons age 9 and younger

A handout he provided listed nearly two-dozen organizations opposing the bill, including police and fire chief associations, the Mayo Clinic and the Insurance Federation of Minnesota. 

The bill would create a fire assistance grant account funded with sales taxes on certain fireworks. Of those dollars, 50 percent would go to support local fire departments with the remainder going to the General Fund.

Rarick emphasized the provision is not to “buy off support,” rather it is to help small departments meet their equipment and training needs.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) said she likes fireworks, but noted the bill could violate state law. It is a felony to sell explosives to a minor, and someone convicted of a felony cannot possess firearms, silencers or explosive devices.

Rarick said he’s willing to work with Hilstrom to address the former, and that his initial reaction to the latter is a felon should not be restricted to use fireworks. Again, he expressed a willingness to look deeper into the concern.

The amount of fireworks that could be sold in a tent is not prescribed in the bill, nor would background checks be required of sellers. Both concern Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-Mpls).

“A domestic terrorist could get access to become a retailer and buy large amounts of explosives and assemble them in a way that could cause huge damage in certain situations,” he said.

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