Dead of night legislating: Lawmakers pass public safety bill, end governor’s emergency powers

By: - June 30, 2021 7:48 am

The Minnesota State Capitol. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Minnesota lawmakers gave final approval early Wednesday morning to a $2.6 billion public safety budget bill after hours of debate that included last-minute amendments over police and criminal justice reforms that some Democrats say fell short.

The deal was nearly scuttled by a separate issue that has roiled Minnesota politics and government for more than a year — Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency powers that he’s deployed in the face of the pandemic.

Walz’s office sent out a press release at midnight saying he was ending emergency powers on July 1, apparently blindsiding Senate Republicans who wanted to end the emergency powers via legislation.

After some wrangling, an amendment settling the emergency powers issue was eventually passed unanimously in the House, sending the state government bill to the Senate, where it also passed, 54-12.

“The governor has held onto these powers far too long and used them far too broadly,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a statement after the vote. “We’ve been clear that we were going to end these powers, so I’m not surprised Walz tried to outmaneuver us — but he does not get to say he let them go. The emergency is over because the Senate and the House said so.”

The House and Senate both recessed until Wednesday, when both will return to complete the final two pieces of the budget — a significant increase in education funding and tax savings for Minnesotans and businesses. 

The DFL-led House voted 75-59, while the GOP-led Senate voted 45-21 on the public safety bill, sending one of the most contentious budget bills of the session to Walz for his signature, likely ensuring the state government will avert any disruption to state government operations. 

House Democrats had intended to make a series of changes to the public safety bill, aiming to add the stringent policing reforms that Senate Republicans had successfully blocked during high-level negotiations. But those plans faltered after additional negotiations between the House and Senate resulted in two more changes to the final bill, one Democratic and one Republican. 

The DFL amendments would create so-called sign-and-release warrants for low-level offenses, meaning police would no longer take someone into custody for a missed court date if it’s for a minor offense, but would release them with a citation instead. That policy change partly fulfills Democrats’ goal to pass more reform after Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a Brooklyn Center police officer as she tried to take him into custody for a missed court hearing.

The GOP amendment would create penalties for the publishing of personal information of police officers, often called “doxxing.”  

Democrats were forced to jettison other amendments that would have created civilian oversight of police, as well as banning cops from affiliating with white supremacy groups.

“We made a run at police accountability issues and measures,” said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, and the bill’s chief author. “It’s not enough. It’s not sufficient. We need a maturer accountability system, a more transparent one. This isn’t a one and done.”

The House and Senate held simultaneous debates, but the Senate eventually recessed as they waited on the House to finish voting to send the bill over for the Senate to give its approval to the amended legislation. The debates delivered a remarkable contrast as the divided Legislature capitalized on two pressing issues in Minnesota: the disproportionate use-of-force — sometimes with deadly results — on Black Minnesotans and rising violent crime in the Twin Cities. 

“It is incredibly painful to sit here and have my community’s profound suffering weaponized for political ends,” said state Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis. “I would ask you, before you start talking about Minneapolis, and what a lawless hellscape it is, to think about if that was your neighborhood.” 

Gomez, who withdrew an amendment to create a civilian review commission, said during the floor debate that recurring killings of Black people by police and rare instances of accountability have hurt the legitimacy of police.

“Communities don’t trust the police and don’t share information with them,” she said. “That makes it really hard to solve serious crime.”

State Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, like other Republicans, said her caucus had pushed for a measure that would have required a report on mandatory minimum sentences in an effort to keep violent criminals incarcerated. 

“This isn’t about politics, this is about problems that we believe need a solution,” she said. 

State Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, gave an impassioned speech, pointing out some of the policy changes he said will make a difference, but nonetheless expressed disappointment. 

“We missed a moment,” he said. “I am very saddened by the fact that we failed Minnesotans and have not met this moment. The world has been watching us.”

The public safety bill includes a number of GOP priorities, including salary raises for law enforcement and enhanced penalties for attempted murder of police officers. The latter provision was inspired by the maiming of former Waseca officer Arik Matson, who was shot while responding to a call in January 2020.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.