A Minnesota attorney has filed a class-action lawsuit demanding that 36 law enforcement agencies refund the proceeds garnered from offering safe driving classes in lieu of traffic tickets.
Attorney Erick Kaardal on Thursday announced the lawsuit filed in southeast Minnesota’s Third Judicial District on behalf of nine plaintiffs who seek to have money paid the program returned to them and other Minnesotans who have taken similar classes. The 90-page complaint that alleges law enforcement agencies participated in “false representation” by claiming the classes were legal when they weren’t.
The classes are the subject of at least three bills currently circulating in the Minnesota Legislature. Two bills seek to pull the classes into conformity with state law, while a third looks to deem them illegal.
District Judge James Fabian ordered the Wabasha County sheriff’s safe driving class to a halt after two county commissioners sued, alleging that law enforcement for years flouted a state law that prohibits such classes. Fabian called the program “a continued and repeated trespass on the laws of the state of Minnesota.”
The programs allow drivers to keep tickets off their records in exchange for paying to take a class ranging in price from $75-125. From 2010 to 2012, such classes raised about $1.6 million, according to a report by State Auditor Rebecca Otto. While about a third of the proceeds from most traffic tickets go to the state, most jurisdictions kept all of the fees generated from their classes. Otto repeatedly warned that such “off the books” alternatives were illegal. In the two months since Fabian’s ruling, most of the remaining cities and counties closed similar safe driving classes. However, nine remain in operation.
Kaardal demands more than $1 million on behalf of his clients and is seeking more to join the class.
“All the County Sheriffs and Police Chiefs had to do was have lawful programs if they really wanted to benefit the public and help alleged offenders.” Kaardal said.
Gov. Mark Dayton said he was confident that the DFL-controlled Legislature would pass a minimum wage hike this year but it may take a while.
"Minimum wage is likely going to be one of those issues, the resolution of which is going to be held off until the last minute of the session," Dayton said on Thursday. "We’ll get a minimum wage increase."
For two weeks, the House and Senate have been stymied over how to raise the wage floor, which at $6.15 an hour is one of the lowest in the nation.
The House, Senate and Dayton all support raising the wage to $9.50 an hour over time. But the House and Dayton both want future increases to automatically rise with the cost of inflation but Senate leaders say an automatic index lacks the DFL votes to pass in the Senate.
"We will have to wait and see how it plays out over time," Dayton said on a conference call with reporters. The DFL governor had hip surgery last month and has been convalescing away from the Capitol since then.
Dayton said he expects a minimum wage bill to pass but it may have to wait until the final days of session.
"We'll come back to that one. We'll get a minimum wage increase...we will have to work out the detail at the right time," Dayton said.
For more than a week, Democrats in the Minnesota Legislature have been at a stalemate over how to raise the state’s minimum wage.
“It would be a dirty shame if we left the session without it,” House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said Wednesday.
Both the House and Senate this year are backing a hike to $9.50 by 2016 but they are stymied on whether future increases should automatically rise with inflation.
The House, so far, has insisted that the new law should include some kind of automatic bump; the Senate has said such a measure would not pass the Senate.
“We are more than 10 votes short and I don’t see any circumstances under which the Senate could pass indexing,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.
But, he said, he is not one of the votes against indexing.
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said the Senate this week counted votes again on the issue. And again there were between 10 and 11 DFL members who would not vote a minimum wage hike with an automatic inflator.
He is not among them.
"I still support $9.50 and indexing," said Hayden. He said he has heard from his constituents, who include many activists and minimum wage workers, repeatedly over the issue.
"I've got really passionate advocates," he said. "They really want this."
But his desire, and theirs, has not yet been enough to move the Senate position. Last year, the Senate only backed a modest increase. Hayden said he thought when they found enough votes to approve a $9.50 increase, "we'd be at a bill signing ceremony by now."
"We were a little shocked that the House wasn't willing to meet us half way," Hayden said. "I still think that there's time."
In an effort to shed more light on who is influencing lawmakers, a Senate panel on Wednesday approved a measure that would require disclosure of officials' spouses' financial interests.
"I really see it as an oversight," said Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, who sponsored the measure.
Various studies have found that Minnesota has weaker financial disclosure requirements than many states. Many other states already require some financial disclosure from spouses, and some even require information about lawmakers and other officials' children.
But the idea has its detractors.
"I just really don’t see how we can force a spouse to comply with this statute," said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. He said he could not support the measure.
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, said she shared that "sense of umbrage."
"I'm going to vote for it but I, too, have some misgivings," she told Eken.
The measure would also ask lawmakers and other officials to disclosure the areas in which they have contracts to do consulting or independent contracting.
A similar measure is moving forward in the Minnesota House as well.
A proposal to avoid partisan, big-money fights for judicial seats by changing the way judges achieve and keep their offices moved ahead on a mixed voice vote at the Legislature Wednesday.
The Senate Subcommittee on Elections approved the measure and sent it to the full Rules Committee.
Sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, the bill proposes an amendment to the state constitution that would go to voters in November. It would replace the current system, in which judges run for re-election with the word "incumbent" by their names, with one that depends on an appointed merit commission and yes-or-no "retention" elections with no opponent on the ballot.
Rest and supporters of the bill, including former Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson, presented the amendment as a way of avoiding partisan judicial elections that require judges to commit on issues that may later come before them. In Wisconsin and Michigan, they said, those races have attracted significant campaign contributions.
"You folks run on platforms," Magnuson told the legislators. "A judge can't run on a platform. That's antithetical to what a judge does. A judge decides cases based on the law and fact in front of him or her."
Sarah Walker, president of the Coalition for Impartial Justice, also argued in support of the bill. "All you have to do is look around the country .... to see that high-cost partisan elections are sweeping the country, and it's not far off in Minnesota."
Currently, most judges do come into office by gubernatorial appointment, but there are rare elections for open seats without an appointee. Once in office, judges stand for re-election and can be challenged by opponents. Most run unopposed.
Opponents of the measure including Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the powerful anti-abortion organization, and others who argued that the measure denied voters the right to freely choose their own judges.
"We oppose the premise that citizens aren't qualified to vote for judges," said Andrea Rau of the MCCL. We believe citizens have the right to vote for a particular judicial candidate, not just against them."
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, a member of the subcommittee, said voters "will have their vote taken away." He said empowering a commission to evaluate judges and recommend replacements means the people's right to select judges would be given to "political appointees."
"I don't see the public pounding our doors for this," Limmer said.
Rest's proposed amendment is now queued up in the Senate Rules Committee along with a proposed amendment that would make it harder for the Legislature to submit future constitutional amendments to voters. The House, which is up for re-election in November, has shown less interest in putting amendments on the ballot this year.
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