ST. PAUL — State representatives spent hours debating a public safety and policing law overhaul on Wednesday, April, 21, less than a day after the world's eyes fixed on Minnesota as a jury handed down a guilty verdict for ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
While much of the state and nation's attention this week was honed on the Chauvin trial, lawmakers continued pushing through budget bills that are set to move next to joint committees where big differences between the House and Senate are set to be ironed out.
Here's a look at the debates that took place this week at the Capitol and what's ahead in the Legislature's last three weeks.
Verdict spurs more conversation of reform
The Minnesota House in the wee hours of Thursday, April 22, passed a public safety and judiciary spending bill complete with proposed changes aimed at police transparency and accountability. Democrats in that chamber said that the changes were needed to promote equity in policing and to prevent deadly incidents involving people of color and Indigenous Minnesotans.
The broad proposal would make police bodycam footage more readily available to family members of those injured or killed by law enforcement, establish citizen oversight councils, set up an early warning system to pinpoint problem officers and start a study of police use of qualified immunity.
The 70-63 vote came a day after a Hennepin County jury convicted Chauvin in the May 25 murder of Floyd. Activists and Black community leaders said the decision was a moment of accountability, but justice could only be served with additional reforms from the Legislature.
“Despite yesterday’s verdict, we still have much work before us to achieve the meaningful change Minnesotans deserve,” Rep. Carlos Mariani, D-St. Paul, said in a release following the vote. “By advancing greater police accountability, funding to make reforms possible, and centering equity and the voices of those who’ve experienced crimes, House DFLers are delivering guidance for a public safety system that reinforces strong and healthy community life for all Minnesotans.”
Republicans, meanwhile, said the proposal "lets criminals go free, hides information from the public, and makes it harder to recruit and train new peace officers." Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, in a statement early Thursday, said, "While this bill does have some good points, the majority of this bill is hostile to law enforcement and counter to public safety. This is the wrong way to go for Minnesota."
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- Minnesota calls in out-of-state police back-up ahead of decision in Chauvin case
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, this week said the Senate likely would evaluate laws placed on the books last year following Floyd's killing and review civil unrest in the Twin Cities that spurred more than $500 million in damages. But he remained noncommital about passing the DFL proposals into law this year.
“I still am not saying we will definitely do more police accountability this next four weeks. There may be something — I’m not saying we will not — I just know that we have to pass the budget bills,” Gazelka said Wednesday on the Senate floor.
The legislative session is set to close out May 17 and lawmakers have a constitutional duty to pass a two-year budget. If they can't coalesce around a compromise spending plan by June 30, the state could face a government shutdown.
Within hours of Tuesday's verdict, Gov. Tim Walz said he was ready to put up his remaining political capital to get the bills passed this session. He didn't say whether he'd stall out budget talks to get the measures through but committed to making public lawmakers blocking the legislation.
While many of the policy changes wrapped into the police accountability package have generated partisan splits, a plan to limit pretext traffic stops appeared more likely to pass.
DFL lawmakers brought forth the proposal after a Brooklyn Center police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, 20, during a traffic stop prompted by outdated license plate tabs on the car Wright was driving.
Gazelka said Republicans could get on board with the plan to limit reasons for the police stops to eliminate stops for vehicle issues that don't pose a safety risk. Walz said the bill should be "an immediate one" to pass.
Widespread budget priorities have to come together
Both legislative chambers this week slogged through dozens of hours of debate to pass divergent budget bills that could determine how much the state spends on schools, heath care, roads, policing and state programs.
Republicans prioritized using state education funds to let students attend private and parochial schools, implementing photo ID requirements for voting, limiting the governor's executive orders and authority to issue them and offering tax cuts for businesses and workers impacted by COVID-19. Democrats, meanwhile, sought to re-write policing laws, raise taxes on top income-earners to offset boosts in funding to schools, working families and child care providers and implement new state standards that allow workers to accrue sick and safe time or take paid family leave.
In the last three weeks of the legislative session (and maybe in overtime special sessions) lawmakers will work to iron out the differences between the bills in conference committees and closed-room negotiations. But legislative leaders acknowledged they're working from very different starting points.
“It’s tough," Gazelka told WCCO Radio on Thursday. "The bills coming out of the House are dramatically different from the bills coming out of the Senate."