A bipartisan group pushing a proposed constitutional amendment to change how Minnesota judges are elected began their public lobbying effort at the Capitol on Wednesday.
The Coalition of Impartial Justice is pressing for a change that would end traditional judicial elections. Instead, sitting judges would face an independent review and their records shared with Minnesota voters, who would then decide whether to keep or toss the jurist.
Advocates say this is superior to the current system, where most judges run unopposed with little outside scrutiny. They also say existing system more easily allows judicial elections to become expensive campaigns, as partisan groups square off after a judge’s ruling on a divisive issue.
“The judicial system works because people trust it and they don’t think it is bought and paid for,” said former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who was appointed by former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “We are at a perfect storm now,” he said, noting a recent spate of expensive and divisive judicial elections in Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Critics like attorney Greg Wersal say supporters want to tinker with the constitution for something that has never been a problem in the state. Judges almost always run unopposed and voters have not ousted an incumbent Supreme Court justice in more than 80 years. He said this is really an effort by sitting judges to protect their positions.
About 20 other states use such judicial retention elections, but Minnesota would join a handful of other states that require a nonpartisan panel to select a pool of qualified judges and an independent assessment of a judge’s tenure that would be shared with voters.
If voters toss a judge, the new judge would come from a group vetted by the indepedent review panel. There would be no way for an outside candidate to run against a judge.
Supporters say the new system makes judges more accountable.
“Minnesotans have little or no info about judges when they are on the ballot,” said Sarah Walker, the group’s president. “There is really no means of holding the judges accountable.”
So far, DFL legislative leaders have not publicly committed to putting this constitutional amendment on the ballot in the coming election. In the last election, voters defeated two proposed amendments, one banning same-sex marriage and another that would have required voters to show a photo ID.
Lawmakers have been gone from the Capitol for months, and return on Tuesday with all the politics and policy they left behind last year.
But in the House, they started the session with some bipartisan work.
The House unanimously passed $20 million bill to help low income Minnesotans with heating bills. With another week of subzero temperatures in the forecast and the region still gripped by a propane shortage, the measure is backed by the leadership of both parties and the governor.
"When we get hotline calls, people are calling in fear and desperation," Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman told members of the House Ways and Means Committee at an informational meeting Tuesday morning.
The measure will particularly aid those who have been struggling with high propane bills in Minnesota's particularly cold winter. After 45 minutes of debate, the measure to shift funds out of the general fund and into the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has said the heating assistance bill will likely be the first measure on the governor's desk this session. Senate spokesman Amos Briggs said the Senate will act "quickly and urgently" to complete the legislative work on the bill.
Bakk told Senate members on Tuesday that the Senate may act on that bill on Monday.
Bakk said the $20 million House bill the House passed does not match with a memo he has from Gov. Mark Dayton, which said $17 million is needed.
Bakk said the earliest date he saw for the emergency fund run out of money was March 1, which is Saturday, when state employees won’t be sending out checks.
“Even if it is March 1, getting the bill to the governor March 3 is, I believe, plenty timely,” he said.
Given the accelerated timeline, Dayton will likely be able to sign that $20 million measure into law by next week.
The House and Senate also appointed, or re-appointed, members to deal with bicameral negotiations on a bill to hike the minimum wage.
Last year, the all Democratic Capitol failed to pass any minimum wage increase, despite the fact that DFL leaders said it was a priority, when the House and Senate could not agree on an increase.
This year advocates, who will hold a large rally at 4 p.m. in the Capitol today, are pushing to raise the wage from one of the nation's lowest -- $6.15 an hour -- to one of the nation's highest -- $9.50 an hour by 2015.
Sen. Chris Eaton, who is sponsoring the minimum wage measure in the Senate, said the Senate plans extensive hearings on the measure before it brings it up for votes.
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she thinks it is time to pass the measure.
“Minnesotans have talked about that minimum wage all summer and fall,” Murphy said. “I think the Senate is listening to them and I think we’re going to be able to make the action complete this year.”
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This post will be updated throughout the day on Tuesday.
State Rep. David FitzSimmons said Monday he would not completely rule out running in a primary election after a defeat at his local endorsing convention.
The Albertville Republican said he has no intention of running, but added "at this point," giving himself ample wiggle room after being voted out by local activists upset at his support for same-sex marriage.
Roughly 160 local delegates on Saturday overwhelmingly selected newcomer Eric Lucero, who had strong backing of local conservatives and the Minnesota Family Council, which opposes same-sex marriage.
Lucero spent months quietly meeting with delegates, trying to assure them he is the more reliable conservative. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
John Helmberger, CEO of Minnesota Family Council, called Lucero, "a candidate who truly represents their values -- who will stand for life, true marriage, and meaningful religious freedom."
FitzSimmons has been under relentless attack by critics saying they felt betrayed by his sudden support for same-sex marriage during the last legislative session. Critics also questioned his romantic relationship with Sarah Walker, a Capitol lobbyist who was on the board of the group that worked to legalize same-sex marriage.
“The attacks that I have suffered over the last nine months, and character assassinations and half-truths and fabrications, continued right through the convention,” FitzSimmons said.
FitzSimmons is seen as a master at orchestrating convention wins, particularly his work that led to former Rep. Tom Emmer winning the GOP nomination for governor nearly four years ago.
FitzSimmons said he had a hard time getting his supporters to the meeting and walked into a convention stacked with opposition.
“If you’re broke, you can have a great accountant, but he is still going to tell you are broke,” FitzSimmons said.
Local political conventions are typically filled with the most diehard and unforgiving activists. FitzSimmons said he would likely fare better with the more diverse pool of GOP primary voters, who might focus more on his his unwavering opposition to taxes and abortion.
“I have had a lot of people push me to run in a primary, and a lot of people saying I would win,” FitzSimmons said. “And I don’t know that I disagree with them.”
A Republican lawmaker dropped his re-election bid in the face of a challenge from within his party over his backing of same-sex marriage.
Republican state Rep. David FitzSimmons, one of just a handful of GOP House members to vote for gay marriage legalization last year, announced his retirement Saturday during a fight for endorsement from local activists. He was challenged by Republican Eric Lucero and others. Much of Lucero's opposition to FitzSimmons focused on the lawmaker's vote to legalize same-sex marriage. Lucero won overwhelming backing at a Saturday convention.
FitzSimmons, long a Republican operative and activist in the most conservative circles, entered the Saturday fight with support from Republican state heavyweights, including House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, gubernatorial candidates Kurt Zellers, Scott Honour and others. But he lacked support from the Albertville area activists that made the party's endorsement decision.
Meanwhile, across the Twin Cities, Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, was endorsed by his local activists for re-election. Like FitzSimmons, he was one of the few Republican lawmakers to vote to legalize same sex marriage last year. Unlike FitzSimmons, his endorsement was not threatened.
A majority of voters in Farmington, like those in Albertville, had voted to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage in 2012.
Also shaking up the politics in the southern Minnesota suburbs, Republican Mary Liz Holberg, of Lakeville, announced she would not run for a ninth term. First elected in 1998, Holberg rose to lead the powerful Ways and Means committee when Republicans held the House.
Holberg championed Republican House members on issues of fiscal restraint and, in recent years, led a sometimes bipartisan effort to protect Minnesotans' privacy. Upon the news of her retirement, Republicans and Democrats expressed admiration for Holberg and her work on social media.
She won her 2012 re-election with 59 percent of the vote in heavily Republican-dominated Lakeville.
"She is one of the most respected members of the House," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said on Twitter Saturday.
On Saturday, Daudt, R-Crown, had his own battle to fight. He faced -- and quickly fended off -- an endorsement challenge from Oak Grove Mayor Mark Korin in his district. Daudt won his local activists' backing for his re-election bid on Saturday
Daudt had said last week that he expected to win endorsement.
"But you can’t take anything for granted," he said.
All photos are credited to the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Longtime Republican state Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a conservative leader on privacy, budget and other issues, announced Saturday morning that she would not run for a ninth term.
Holberg, R-Lakeville, was first elected in 1998 and rose to lead the powerful Ways and Means committee when Republicans held the House. She made the announcement that she would not run again at her district convention in Farmington, House staffer Andy Post confirmed.
Holberg championed Republican House members on issues of fiscal restraint and, in recent years, led a sometimes bipartisan effort to protect Minnesotans' privacy. She had also chaired the House's transportation and civil law committees at various points in her career.
On social media on Saturday, both Democrats and Republicans expressed their admiration for Holberg.
She won her 2012 re-election with 59 percent of the vote in heavily Republican-dominated Lakeville.
See other House members calling it quits below. The entire Minnesota House is up for re-election in November.
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