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Abortion, gun control proposals split Minnesota lawmakers in session's 3rd week

Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus Political Director Rob Doar spoke out against gun control proposals Thursday, Jan. 25, 2019, at the State Capitol. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE1 / 5
Mental health counselor Ted Matthews on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, speaks to the House Agriculture, Food Finance and Policy Committee about stress Minnesota farmers face. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE 2 / 5
State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, told reporters that he planned to bring two gun bills aimed at curbing gun violence. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE 3 / 5
Thousands of abortion opponents marched on the Minnesota Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, to mark the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Roe v. Wade and to urge restrictions on the procedure. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service4 / 5
Danielle Wishard-Tudor on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, became emotional as she spoke with Minnesota lawmakers about her brother Jean Claude Paquier Wishard (pictured in photo) who died in a 2017 distracted driving crash. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE5 / 5

ST. PAUL -- Family members of those killed in texting and driving related accidents broke down in tears as they asked lawmakers to stiffen penalties for using cell phones behind the wheel.

Gun owners and gun control advocates made their cases about potential changes making it tougher to buy firearms in Minnesota.

Abortion opponents marched on the Capitol and said they'd again push a bill vetoed last year.

As the Minnesota Legislature entered its third week of legislative session, agreement over issues like offering extra help to farmers and cracking down on texting while driving seemed to crystallize.

But entrenchment over gun regulations and abortion restrictions appeared likely to delay or prevent legislative changes.

Here's a look at what happened this week at the Capitol.

Emotional testimony as lawmakers aim to toughen texting and driving laws

Family members of those who died in cell phone-related crashes held up photos of their loved ones and gave moving testimony this week as Minnesota lawmakers considered outlawing holding a cell phone while behind the wheel.

Members of the House and Senate Transportation Committees advanced companion bills that would set petty misdemeanor charges and a $50 fine for drivers found using their phones without using a hands-free or one-touch setting. Use of a phone for GPS navigation or emergency communication would be exempt under the proposal.

Bipartisan support for the bills and a change of heart from legislative leaders indicate the measure could make it through the Legislature. Walz has said he supports it.

Another measure that advanced this week would subject drivers that text behind the wheel and crash causing injury or death to penalties on par with those for drunk driving and another that would outlaw holding a phone while driving.

The bill would also require the state to include distracted driving training in driver's education courses and increase penalties for texting and driving offenses, with the state able to take possession of a driver's phone after several offenses.

“It’s time for us to get some teeth into the law," the bill's sponsor Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said. "It’s time for us as a state to say we need to put the phone down."

Gun owners, gun control advocates square off

Gun owners from around the state traveled to the Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 24, to encourage lawmakers to vote against gun control measures up for their consideration.

The same day, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, at a news conference, announced he'd carry two bills that would require universal background checks to buy firearms and let family and friends call on law enforcement to remove a person's guns if he or she seems to pose a danger to him or herself or to others.

“I think it’s time that we had a chance to air this issue publicly," Latz said.

A companion to the so-called "red flag" bill has been introduced in the House, where Democrats hold a comfortable majority and appear ready to pass it. And DFL Gov. Tim Walz has said he'd sign both proposals into law if they reach his desk.

In the Senate, GOP lawmakers hold a two-seat majority and lawmakers from both parties have signaled it might not have the support to pass.

Members of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus said they'd encourage lawmakers to seek other avenues for reducing instances of gun violence like improving access to mental health resources and enforcing existing laws. And they raised concerns about someone abusing the proposed "red flag" measure to get back at another.

"You have no opportunity to provide your defense, you have no opportunity to give your side of the story," Rob Doar, the group's political director, said, "yet you have law enforcement knocking on your door to take your firearms away."

Abortion opponents march on the Capitol, plan to revive ultrasound bill

Thousands of abortion opponents on Tuesday marched on the Capitol to mark the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision and to urge restrictions on abortion procedures in the state.

On the steps of the Capitol, demonstrators cheered in support of a bill which would require that pregnant women have access to ultrasound imaging preformed by their abortion provider. Former Gov. Mark Dayton in 2018 vetoed the proposal.

And now, with a split Legislature and with a Democrat holding the pen, legislation dealing with abortion — whether aiming to restrict access or expand it — seems unlikely to succeed.

Farmers ask for protection against fraud, extra mental health help

In the wake of an Ashby grain elevator embezzling scheme that cost farmers and others more than $5 million, lawyers representing those who worked with Ashby Farmers Cooperative Elevator Co. asked lawmakers to offer additional education to those who sit on board of directors and require third-party audits of elevators across the state.

In the fall, the elevator's board learned its former manager Jerome "Jerry" Hennessey wrote checks from the elevator totaling more than $5.5 million for personal purchases including home improvements, international big game hunts and taxidermy.

Industry advocates said additional oversight could help detect fraud earlier but urged lawmakers not to create burdensome regulations for all cooperative and elevator managers based on one person's actions.

Mental health providers and farmers also called on the House Agriculture Committee to swiftly pass extra funding for counseling services for providers in the state. Legislators on the committee said the legislation would be a top priority.